American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

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False Construction (found poem)

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From Noah Webster’s Grammatical Institute of the English Language … Part Second. Containing a Plain and Comprehensive Grammar (1800):

False Construction

That 1 pens want mending. That 2 books are torn.
These 3 is a fine day. That 4 will make excellent scholars.
These 5 lad will be an honor to his friends. This 6 ladies
behave with modesty.

1 these. 2 those. 3 this. 4 those. 5 this. 6 these.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

January 2, 2015 at 9:27 pm

Posted in Everything Else

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Vizpoe

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Usher1dI came upon a curious fact by accident: E. E. Cummings had a hand in a silent-film adaptation of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” His name doesn’t appear in the credits, at least not in the versions that stream online, but his involvement is certainly evident in the film’s beautiful use of language. This begins with the opening sequence, in which Poe’s text crashes round, kaleidoscope fashion (evoking, of course, the crashing down of the Usher mansion). There are also three crucial words later in the film (beat, crack, scream), broken down into their constituent letters, captions dancing the meanings of the scenes they explain. The Cummings involvement also makes sense given the prominent roles of two friends: James Sibley Watson, Jr., editor of The Dial, and Watson’s wife, Hildegarde, with whom Cummings maintained a vigorous correspondence. Sibley directed the film; Hildegarde starred as Madeleine Usher.

Usher3But why is the Cummings-Poe connection so obscure? That’s one of the things I found curious. The Cummings-Harriet Beecher Stowe connection has received at least some attention. He created a ballet of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1935); it was never produced, but the text appears in a book of his plays. “Usher” (1928) has fallen through the cracks. There’s no mention of the film in Cummings scholarship, and no mention of Cummings in The Poe Cinema. Yet his share in the film’s creation is mentioned several times online, most notably on the website of the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) (link). There, a brief clip is paired with extensive notes; those notes led me in turn to a fine essay by Lisa Cartwright, which likewise mentions Cummings. That essay, it’s true, draws on unpublished letters in private hands, but it isn’t clear that those letters disclosed his involvement. How then did it become known? And why isn’t it better known?

Usher9The full film is available for download at Archive.org (link) and streams from several other sites. A scant 13 minutes long, it is emphatically an art film, visually indebted to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but with an aspect that looks forward to Kenneth Anger. Do I mean by this anything other than that the film invests its silliness with ritual significance? Poe too invested the silly with significance, but for Poe ritual wasn’t the point. Still, the film is true to Poe, in its way, caring more for effect than explanation. The film is weird.

Usher5The NFPF notes that Watson’s Dial “published groundbreaking reappraisals of Edgar Allan Poe.” I would like to read those. I like, in any casem how the film pays tribute to Poe the writer, not by making him a character in his own stories already a familiar tactic when this film was made but by figuring books as part of the story’s Gothic architecture, a source of its horror.

Usher1mSo much more to say, but not enough time. Perhaps in a few days.

Note: the online versions of the film have varied soundtracks and I haven’t sampled them sufficiently to give a ranking. This YouTube version (link) has an organ accompaniment that evokes tradition; no musician is credited. The score at Archive.org (link), by Lee Rosevere, is more fifties B-movie, which feels right too.

Written by Ben Friedlander

April 27, 2014 at 10:48 pm

from an Imaginary Conversation

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for Dan Bouchard

Landor-Fields
Walter Savage Landor: It has been my fortune to love, in general, those men most who have thought most differently from me, on subjects wherein others pardon no discordance. In my opinion, I have no more right to be angry with a man whose reason has followed up a process different from what mine has, and is satisfied with the result, than with one who was gone to Venice while I am at Florence, and who writes to me that he likes the place, and that, although he said once he should settle elsewhere, he shall reside in that city.

W. C. Fields: Get away from me you little bastard! For two cents — or even one — I’d kick in your teeth.

Written by Ben Friedlander

August 25, 2013 at 10:02 am

“…the condition of a frog…”

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Ralph Maud at the recent Charles Olson Centenary Conference in Vancouver

Twentieth-century detour…

I mentioned yesterday that Charles Olson’s Reading at Berkeley appeared as a pamphlet in 1966, and that Ralph Maud later produced a more accurate transcript with notes. Maud published his version as The Berkeley Reading: A Triptite Edition … For Use in English 414, Spring 1970, Simon Fraser University. What a class that must have been!

George Butterick relied on Maud’s transcript for his own annotated version, which appeared in the first volume of Muthologos: The Collected Lectures and Interviews (1979). That essential two-volume collection has been out of print for several years … but now, thanks to Maud, a new, single-volume edition is on the way. A decade ago, Maud published his “Specifications for a New Edition” (in the Minutes of the Charles Olson Society), so I have an idea of the improvements involved. They will be welcome.

Talonbooks, the publisher, has a beautiful page for the new edition here, and Amazon is offering a 34% discount for pre-orders (link). Unless I’m mistaken, the cover highlights Olson at Berkeley, a different view of the podium from the cover of the old Coyote pamphlet.

Here’s another excerpt from the reading; it too touches on nineteenth-century American culture — incoherently, but also suggestively:

… the thing I propose to do tonight is to read you the longest poem I have ever been unable to sustain, but the one I believe in the most … simply because … it has such a weak backbone that there’s a nerve in it, only, like that principle of the condition of a frog, elementary — Not the synapse. The synapse is easy; it’s the neural condition that’s difficult. To simplify the neural is what I honestly believe is what’s up, another way of saying the whole biological picture of the organism is wrong, I mean, that captured frog of Calaveras County is that kind of bullshit, that this society makes its heroes of its poets Mark Twain and Robert Frost, and elects presidents of Kennedys and Johnsons. I mean, until we realize that each one of us is as hard as we’re made or can make ourselves — and that’s the stone, not this live frog hidden. Even that beautiful Melville can’t get over that fact, which is the source of Pierre

Olson refers once more to Twain at the end of the reading, in a difficult and also troubling passage that refers to sentimental culture as “those fucking — not those cemetery things, but those lithographs of ladies loves”; also as “those gooky fucking Valentine lousy cemetery poets.” By “gooky” Olson surely meant “goopy,” but the racial slur — this is 1965 — must have entered quickly into consciousness, since he segues right away to China (or back to China, since it was mentioned briefly earlier in the reading). He says, “that lousy middle culture and middle class and middleness … is the neo-capitalism of China.” The passage is all about revulsion: sentimental culture, cheap wristwatches for export, goopiness … and a certain kind of cleanliness. All of these things disgust. What’s needed then is the right kind of cleanliness:

When he entered Peking, [Mao] gave soap out to scrub those fucking streets, or, like Baltimore, those goddamn stoops of Peking. I mean, you know, there is disease, outside the United States: water disease, rat disease, yellow disease, all sorts of bunonic shit. Christ, we’ve taught cleanliness to the world. Well, then. let us be clean.

I’ve had these passages marked for some time, thinking to write an essay on “manifest domesticity,” Pierre, and Olson. Well, one of these days …

Written by Ben Friedlander

July 24, 2010 at 12:24 pm

Philip Freneau or Raymond Queneau?

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By circumstance, not design, I’ve been on vacation from this blog for a few months, with much of my attention focused on Charles Olson, a poet who flourished long after the age of Whitman and Dickinson … though he certainly had his roots in that age. Olson began his career as a Melville scholar, tracking down Melville’s library and writing a superb book on Moby-Dick. Unlike many other Melville scholars, moreover, he was also pretty engaged with the poetry. He owned the Constable edition of Melville’s works and heavily annotated the volume of Poems, as well as the two volumes of Clarel, a book Olson wanted Grove Press to reprint with his own introduction. I hope to post a few notes on all that in the coming months.

But right now I want to mark an anniversary. Forty-five years ago today, on July 23rd, 1965, Olson closed the Berkeley Poetry Conference with a notorious reading: there was very little recitation involved; Olson spoke instead in a stream of consciousness, tripping on the edge of coherence. Libbie Rifkin has written a fine analysis of this reading, which she takes to be a defining moment … not so much for what Olson said, as for the social vectors he tried to direct. As she writes in Career Moves:

It was a difficult speech act to bring off. Olson’s performance — considered by some to be a tour de force, while others walked out — embodied the contradictory dynamics at work in the conference and the tensions within the community at large. Billed as a “reading,” identified by the poet himself as a “talk,” and later derided as a “filibuster,” it has been viewed both as a brilliant enactment of the open-form poetics that Olson is credited with founding, and as a drunken ramble.

Rifkin’s book is on the avant-garde as “counter-institution,” a word whose equivocal meaning reproduces the equivocal status of Olson’s reading.

In 1966, the text of Olson’s reading was published as a pamphlet by Coyote Press (in a transcript by Zoe Brown; a later transcript by Ralph Maud formed the basis for the version in Muthologos). Here’s the ending of Maud’s version; Olson is riffing here off  a name from his adolescence:

It’s like Frenaud, that poet, the French poet, whom we — you know, the French poet that was at Spoleto was a man I never heard of, named Frenaud. And I said, “You don’t mean Philip Freneau?” (LAUGHTER.) You know, like, I’m so fucking American I didn’t even know that there was some guy like Quasimodo, a French poet named Frenaud. (LAUGHTER.) Sounded like Qu-Quineau or some — I mean, a water — I mean, I don’t know. But if there’s only — if I ever heard a name Frenaud, it was Philip Freneay; you know, that contemporary of the American Revolution and that very good, by the way, writer of Castle Otranto literature, better than it. You know, the commonness of John Smith, who replaced, I believe directly, William Shakespeare, has only been caught up with, in fact, I think, I really think, and it’s not plop and shit, in Berkeley since the — the day this fucking Conference started. And that’s why we were all fucked up two years ago; literally, like the eighteenth century. I mean, what a — what a breakthrough! (TAPE ENDED HERE.)

The poet at Spoleto was, in fact, named Frenaud, but better than the echo of Freneau is the leap Olson makes to Queneau. Talk about your long eighteenth century. It swallows the nineteenth century whole. Another white whale.

Written by Ben Friedlander

July 23, 2010 at 2:21 pm

falling into a lump, or flowing in waves

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It is time, indeed, that men and women should both cease to grow old in any other way than as the tree does, full of grace and honor.
— Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century

But men and women aren’t trees, and Margaret Fuller wasn’t fated to enjoy a graceful old age.

In July of 1850, when she was 40 years old, Fuller’s ship from Europe, the Elizabeth, struck a sandbar within sight of Fire Island. The sudden jolt loosened Hiram Powers’ statue of John C. Calhoun, which was lashed in the hold, and the marble tore a hole through the hull. With the tide rising and a heavy storm coming down, the ship began to take on water at an alarming rate.

Fuller might have saved herself by swimming to shore with the aid of a sailor, but she refused to leave her husband — who couldn’t swim — and she refused to be separated from her two-year-old son, who couldn’t be carried in the rough sea.

When Emerson heard the news of Fuller’s drowning, he sent Thoreau to search for her body and effects. Some of Fuller’s manuscript material was recovered, but her book on the Italian revolution — she and her husband had been participants — was lost forever in the waves. Years later, in Cape Cod, Thoreau wrote:

Once … it was my business to go in search of the relics of a human body, mangled by sharks, which had just been cast up, a week after a wreck. …

Close at hand they were simply some bones with a little flesh adhering to them. … There was nothing at all remarkable about them, and they were singularly inoffensive both to the senses and the imagination. But as I stood there they grew more and more imposing. They were alone with the beach and the sea, whose hollow roar seemed addressed to them, and I was impressed as if there was an understanding between them and the ocean which necessarily left me out, with my snivelling sympathies. That dead body had taken possession of the shore and reigned over it as no living one could, in the name of a certain majesty which belonged to it.

Thoreau also died young. Emerson, the oldest, lived longest, to the very edge of his 79th year, though he suffered from dementia in his last decade, forgetting words and friends and then himself. After 1872, he wrote little, and then nothing, rereading his old journals while evincing a great contentment, sinking slowly into oblivion. In his last series of lectures, The Natural History of the Intellect, he wrote of memory:

Without it all life and thought were an unrelated succession. As gravity holds matter from flying off into space, so memory gives stability to knowledge; it is the cohesion which keeps things from falling into a lump, or flowing in waves.

I like to think of my scholarship and poetry as autonomous activities, with occasional points of crossing. Most of those points are marked in pencil in my books. Sometimes, I try to gather them up, to make a line, to make a text. The text above was written for a poetry reading in New York, with Fanny Howe. I’m not sure why I thought it was necessary, or even a good idea, but I wanted to set the three quotes alongside my own work, much of which recently loops tangentially from hospital and nursing home. Fuller’s dream, Thoreau’s appraisal, Emerson’s accedence: three incommensurate stances I’d like, somehow, to reconcile.

Written by Ben Friedlander

April 6, 2010 at 8:42 am

Briefly Noted

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In the sports section of the New York Times this past Tuesday, in a college basketball story:

St. John’s earned the 73-51 victory in the Emma Lazarus round of the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden. You know: the poem, “The New Colossus,” engraved on the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”

I gather from the story that the team St. John’s beat, Connecticut, was tired and poor. And so deserved to lose? Not exactly pro-immigrant (or pro-“immigrant”) in spirit. But it’s nice to see Emma Lazarus name-checked on the sports page!

Written by Ben Friedlander

March 12, 2010 at 9:04 pm

The Ungallant Cynic

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A few weeks back, Jessica Smith wrote on her blog, “most of the great poets writing today are women.”

At the time, I didn’t have an opinion on the matter — or rather, I had a lot of opinions, but no urge to sort them — so I put it all out of my head. But then, yesterday, reading James L. Onderdonk’s History of American Verse (1901), I came upon a characterization that brought it back to mind.

According to Onderdonk, there were no women poets worthy of mention after Anne Bradstreet … until the Revolution, at which time a great many came to sudden prominence. Onderdonk names five — Phillis Wheatley, Mercy Otis Warren, Ann Eliza Bleeker, Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson, Susannah Rowson — then gives brief summaries of their lives — not their work — before offering the following:

Taking them all in all, these songstresses constituted a singular group. An ungallant cynic might well ask what degree of literary excellence would be expected of a band made up chiefly of a negro slave, a female revolutionist, a hypochondriac, a society belle, and a gushing sentimentalist. Yet it was from such a heterogeneous source that our infant literature was receiving its nourishment.

Which means, of course, that ours is not the first period about which it might be said, most of the best are women. Though in Onderdonk’s case, the claim is not exactly a rousing endorsement. He offers it with a trace of disgust. In fact, the disgust is what I find most noteworthy, the deference he shows to the “ungallant cynic,” whose point of view is put forward in the very act of being disclaimed.

The cynic, of course, is Onderdonk himself, who imagines that we all must be cynics too. Predisposed to dismissing these women for their status, their occupations, their personal qualities, he reminds himself — I mean, he reminds us — that they are nonetheless mothers, or anyhow nursemaids, deserving of respect, if only for the sake of the infant they nourish.

Is there a lesson in this? Probably not. But it does make me realize how dissimulating a business claim-making is. Offered as a description of poetry, a claim is more often a way of constituting the world — the world we think we inhabit. Does that world embarrass us? Excite us? Annoy us? Bring contentment? And why? The why of the feeling is at least as important as the truth of the claim that generates it.

As for me, what I mostly feel now is curiosity. About Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson. I seem to have missed her in David Shields’s anthology.

As far as worlds go: I want one big enough to get lost in.

On Usury Laws

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Stan Apps has written a delightful essay on Pound’s “Usura” canto (link here), giving the poem credit for its beautiful language while calling in the chit for meaning. He does Pound a favor, taking the poem’s economic theory at face value — as Pound himself would have wanted — but of course this is no favor at all since Pound’s thinking is so shoddy in this context. Confronted with that shoddiness, many a critic has lent Pound a hand, and done such a good job, you cease to recognize the original structure. Other critics pause to gander, but move on quickly after noting the filth. A few others, very few, go through Pound’s premises room by room, identifying all the violations of code. The delight of Stan’s essay is its restraint: he observes Pound’s thought in all its ramshackle glory, but only in order to make a sketch, which he does with an architect’s eye. A piercing, disengaged appraisal.

My excuse for mentioning Pound here: Stan’s post brought to mind an 1836 essay by William Cullen Bryant, “On Usury Laws,” which adopts the exact opposite stance as The Cantos. For Bryant, money is a commodity like any other, entitled like any other to profitable investment; the usury laws, which fix the interest on loans, are a fetter on free trade. Like Pound, he denounces the ignorance of common understanding, but his ignorance is Pound’s corrective. Here is  Bryant’s opening paragraph:

The fact that the usury laws, arbitrary, unjust, and oppressive as they are, and unsupported by a single substantial reason, should have been suffered to exist to the present time, can only be accounted for on the ground of the general and singular ignorance which has prevailed as to the true nature and character of money. If men would but learn to look upon the medium of exchange, not as a mere sign of value, but as value itself, as a commodity governed by precisely the same laws which affect other kinds of property, the absurdity and tyranny of legislative interference to regulate the extent of profit which, under any circumstances, may be charged for it, would at once become apparent.

Bryant’s arguments are familiar enough: a lender’s return should be proportionate to risk; without that return, fewer loans would be made, and economic development would stifle. Also familiar: the laws hurt the very people they’re supposed to protect. OK, not very interesting. Worth maybe a sentence or two in a book on poetry and economics.

But it did give me a thought. Call it a thought bubble — better than an economic bubble: an episode of Deadliest Warrior, with Pound and Bryant doing battle. Crank up those computer simulations! If it’s not too prejudicial saying crank…

Written by Ben Friedlander

December 21, 2009 at 7:01 pm

Paying Little Mind to Major Poets

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Let me start with Emerson’s best-known aphorism, from “Self-Reliance”: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” What Emerson means here is partly explained by the rest of his sentence: “…adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” A roundabout way of saying that priests are as foolish as politicians, as tedious as logicians. Or else, instead, that little minds are tormented by what great ones adore. Or maybe that little minds like to be tormented. Emerson can be so confusing.

Be all that as it may, I do value consistency, and have often wondered about my own lack of it vis-à-vis nineteenth- and twentieth-century poets. For instance, the fact that I’m happy ignoring whole areas of activity in the later period, whereas, in the earlier, I’d like someday to have an understanding of the whole. In the later period, I’m even willing to ignore major figures (so-called), whereas, in the earlier, importance, however defined, serves perfectly well as a basis for paying attention. The reason, I’ve often told myself, is that I have the luxury of dispassion when it comes to the nineteenth century. I can be a scholar in my reading, setting aside the necessity for making choices, the need a practitioner feels to insist on his or her own commitments. For when it comes to the twentieth century (and the twenty-first too, of course), I’m a poet first. I find myself — or rather my work — implicated in the projects I consider. To grant certain poets, even historically unavoidable ones, their credence would be to bestow on them the benefit of my interest and so qualify the interest — and credence — of the work I do myself, or at least of the work that makes possible what I do.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve told myself, now and again, trying to understand my lack of patience with the present-day equivalents to antebellum versifiers whose writings I do manage to approach with sympathy. It’s a good solution, I think, this distinction I make between reading as a scholar and reading as a poet. … Too bad it’s probably bunk. In both centuries, I let my curiosity guide me, and often become quite taken with poets out of proportion to their actual importance as anyone else might see it. In my nineteenth century, for example, Bayard Taylor is much more important than Jones Very, and Fitz-Greene Halleck is much more lasting than E. A. Robinson. Which may sound reasonable to you, but that’s only because Whitman and Dickinson have so skewed our perceptions. Basically, this is like saying that Randall Jarrell is more important than T. S. Eliot, Joanne Kyger more lasting than Robert Frost. Which I do believe, by the way.

But please don’t mistake this as a “post-avant” vs. “school of quietude” argument (the Jarrell reference ought to clarify that). I’m talking about taking one’s own interests seriously, which is precisely a redrawing of such existing lines. For me, Marianne Moore is the center of modernism, not Eliot, or Pound, or Williams, and that means I can read Merrill and Ashbery with equal pleasure, while finding Lowell and Duncan — who drank too deeply of the Four Quartets — almost unbearable.

And therein lies for me the big difference between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: I find so much more of the latter century’s poetry unbearable. And not because it’s worse, mind you, but because it touches me more deeply, more directly. I may be put to sleep by James Russell Lowell, but he doesn’t irritate me like Robert. That irritation, I would add, says much less about Lowell — or me — than it does about the nature of proximity.

Putting this all together, I’d say that as a scholar, I read like a poet who has gone numb. Or rather: as a poet, I read like a scholar with bad allergies. Except that the difference is not between scholarship and poetry, but centuries. As I move further into the past, I find it easier to withhold judgment. In the present and near past, judgment withholds me.

So yes, I’m inconsistent, but no longer tortured about it. And not because I’m now “self-reliant.” It’s immersion in the social I accept, my vantage on the past, and future, I’ve acknowledged. Which leads, I hope, to the ultimate inconsistency: revision. After all, what good is history if it can’t be rewritten, reconsidered, redeployed?

Update: Ron Silliman has written a response to this post (link here), leading to further remarks of my own (here).

Written by Ben Friedlander

October 15, 2009 at 8:21 am