Friday, March 27, 2015

Tomas Tranströmer, R.I.P.



Sad news: The great Swedish poet and Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer has died.  Here, in memoriam, are some of his poems in translations I made with poet and critic Lars-Håkan Svensson when I lived in Sweden in the late 1990s.  They originally appeared in a special Scandinavian issue of Samizdat.


Haiku by Tomas Tranströmer


A lamasery
with hanging gardens. 
Battle pictures.

Thoughts stand unmoving
like the mosaic tiles
in the palace yard.

Up along the slopes
under the sun – the goats
were grazing on fire.

On the balcony
standing in a cage of sunbeams –
like a rainbow.

Humming in the mist.
There, a fishing-boat out far –
trophy on the waters.

II 

Cool shagginess of pines
on the selfsame tragic fen.
Always and always.

Carried by darkness.
I met an immense shadow
in a pair of eyes.

These milestones
have set out on a journey.
Hear the wood-dove’s voice.

III 

Resting on a shelf
in the library of fools
the sermon-book, untouched.

My happiness swelled
and the frogs sang in the bogs
of Pomerania.

He’s writing, writing…
The canals brimmed with glue.
The barge across the Styx.

Go quiet as rain,
meet the whispering leaves.
Hear the Kremlin bell.

IV 

The ceiling rent open
and the dead one sees me.
This face.

Something has happened.
The moon lit up the room.
God knew about it.

Hear the sighing rain.
I whisper a secret, to reach
all the way in there.

A scene on the platform.
What a strange calm –
the inner voice.


The sea is a wall.
I hear the gulls crying –
they’re waving to us.

God’s wind at my back.
The shot which comes without sound –
a dream all-too-long.

Ash-colored silence.
The blue giant passes.
Cool breeze from the sea.

I have been there –
and on a whitewashed wall
the flies are gathering.

Birdmen.
The apple trees in blossom.
The great enigma.


Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Face of Glamour



I’ve seen a lot of them, lately: the bland, glamorous faces of models in advertisements for fashion and various luxurious commodities. They’re ubiquitous anyway, but my exposure has been amped up considerably by recent prolonged stays in airports and hotels, and a brief stint in hospital (I’m fine), where I’ve found myself leafing through glossy magazines.

The empty, blandly aloof gaze is everywhere in these magazines, in photo spreads as well as advertisements—a gaze we know from models on catwalks, too, a gaze so universally available that young people can mimic it effortlessly for the selfies they post on social media. But what lies behind that gaze? Why has it become the universal form of expression for glamorous images of human faces?

One possibility is that it exists to invite the viewer—that is, the potential consumer—in. As cool and off-putting as the expressionless face of the model may seem, it is, after all, an expression placed on the face of the consumer’s aspirational self. Whether the images appeal to the sexually objectifying male gaze is of secondary importance in most of the images, which exist to sell fragrances and clothing and accessories not to men but to women. The female viewer is, of course, expected to feel inferior to the woman in the image, but only because she has not yet acquired the product that (it is hollowly promised) will transform her, Cinderella-like, into the glamorous woman in the image. So a lack of expression could be a kind of invitation, a blankness or abstraction into which one is invited to project oneself.

The appeal of relative abstraction as a method of inviting the spectator to project his- or herself into an image is a well-established principle of graphic art. Scott McCloud, in his seminal study Understanding Comics, tells us “When you look at a photo or realistic drawing of a face, you see it as the face of another,” however, “when you enter the world of the cartoon, you see yourself…. The cartoon is a vacuum into which our identity and awareness are pulled.” This has everything to do with the abstraction, the relative blankness, of the way characters are represented. We identify with the more abstracted features of the character, write McCloud, but
…on the other hand, no one expects audiences to identify with brick walls or landscapes, and indeed, backgrounds tend to be slightly more realistic. In some comics, this split is far more pronounced. The Belgian ‘clear-line’ style of Hergé’s Tintin combines very iconic [that is, abstracted] characters with unusually realistic backgrounds. This combination allows readers to mask themselves in a character and safely enter a sensually stimulating world. One set of lines to see. Another set of lines to be.
Certainly there is something to this, but it is equally true that, along with the pulling-in effect of the glamorous face, there is a pushing-away, a remoteness or aloofness. Roland Barthes, in his famous essay “The Face of Garbo,” gets something of the effect when he describes the blankness of Greta Garbo’s face in the film Queen Christina:
 …the make-up has the snowy thickness of a mask: it is not a painted face, but one set in plaster, protected by the surface of the color, not by its lineaments. Amid all this snow at once fragile and compact, the eyes alone, black like strange soft flesh, but not in the least expressive.
The abstraction of the face and the inexpressivity of the eyes elevated Garbo above the realm of ordinary mimesis: in Queen Christina she represented not a particular woman, in particular existential circumstances, but “offered to one's gaze a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature,” a creature “descended form a heaven where all things are formed and perfected in the clearest light.” Her remoteness is the remoteness of an ideal, and the blankness of the gaze is an important part of this removal from the sublunary world of particularity.

The blank gaze of the glamour model shows how she inhabits a purer, more ideal world than ours, a world beyond contingency and circumstance, a world where everything is sufficient unto itself. It repels us and our messy, flawed world—even as it provides a blank space into which we can project ourselves, as the consumers of the advertised products (and therefore as the inhabitants of the idealized world). John Berger, in the passages on envy in Ways of Seeing, describes exactly the self-sufficiency portrayed in the glamour model’s bland gaze:
Being envied is a solitary form of reassurance. It depends precisely on not sharing your experience with those who envy you. You are observed with interest but you do not observe with interest—if you do, you will become less enviable. In this respect the envied are like bureaucrats; the more impersonal they are, the greater the illusion (for themselves and others) of their power…. It is this which explains the absent, unfocused look of so many glamour images. They look out over the looks of envy which sustain them.
There’s a reason the blank gaze has become the ubiquitous expression in advertisements for aspirational products: the combination of exclusion and potential inclusion, of aloofness and space for us to project ourselves, is a powerful vortex. And unless we enter some future mode of social organization in which social ratification is satisfied in more substantial ways than the promise that one will be envied if one buys what a particular glossy ad is selling, it’s a gaze to which we will continue to be subjected.




Wednesday, March 11, 2015

What Rhymes with Wallace?: Wallace Stevens and Rhyme



One of the unexpected pleasures of the recent Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture since 1900, for me, was running across Anthony Madrid in the corridors between sessions.  I hadn’t seen him for months, not since he pressed a collection of Edward Lear’s verse into my hands in a tiny used bookstore under the Metra tracks in Evanston, and was glad to let him pull me into a nearby room where he was about to join other members of the Wallace Stevens Society in a panel on Stevens and rhyme.

Madrid spoke first, beginning with a general précis of his argument about the trajectory of rhyme in English verse.  I’d heard this before, when Madrid joined Don Share and Lea Graham on a panel on the poetry of Michael Robbins I chaired at the Midwest MLA a year ago, but it’s such an intriguing argument I was happy to hear it rehearsed again.  The gist of it is that after the Elizabethan period, whole categories of rhyme are, essentially, decommissioned from English verse, or become far less common (critics of Madrid’s theory love to find exceptions, but a full reading of his doctoral work in The Warrant for Rhyme reveals a strong case for a general trend of the kind he describes).  Rhymes that involve strong semantic links—semantic similarities, or opposites, or rhymes from the same semantic category—greatly diminish over the course of the seventeenth century.  So me/thee, mine/thine, he/she, berry/cherry, and the like become far less common.  Madrid makes much of this: the link between rhymes becomes less rational, he says, and more a matter of mystery, as if the poet wills the rhyming words to belong together for reasons unknowable to the intellect.

The anti-semantic nature of rhyme becomes a norm in the eighteenth century, and it is only with Thomas Percy’s 1765 Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, an antiquarian’s selection of old ballads and other poems, that the older style of rhyme begins to return for the Romantic era.  A Romantic like Byron, when he is serious, as in Childe Harold, rhymes like an eighteenth century poet, but when he’s comic, as in Don Juan or Beppo, he makes rhymes that go out of their way to draw attention to themselves, and appear as stunts (as Butler’s comic rhymes in Hubridas did).  The rhyme becomes something deliberately original, frame-breaking and winking.  And this sounds the death-knell for rhyme, since over the nineteenth century rhyme becomes less a holistic part of poems and more of an attention-grabbing device, until in the modern era it is all-but abandoned.

This brings us to Wallace Stevens, whose poetry only rarely rhymes—11 early poems are consistently rhymed, and after that rhyme occurs as an occasional grace, like alliteration.  When it does rhyme, it almost always uses the classical rhyme of the eighteenth century, which does not seek to draw attention to its cleverness (an exception being “übermenschlichkeit/ word soon come right”).  There is rarely a semantic quality to the rhyme, and Madrid argues that this is aligned with Stevens’ belief in the mysterious powers of the imagination—the rhymes are convened only by the power of imagination, not on some rationally apprehensible basis.  Stevens rhymes less and less over time, too, as the poetry becomes less overtly musically-driven and more liturgical.

After Madrid, Eugene Vydrin of NYU took the stage to speak about rhyme and the adherence of the poem to reality in Stevens, and was followed by Joon Soo-Bong of Seoul National University, who spoke about schematic rhyme as essentially antithetical to Stevens’ aesthetic of flow.  All very interesting, but I was particularly fascinated by Roi Tartakovsky, who turned to empirical linguistic research to explain rhymes and other sonic effects in Stevens’ poetry. 

Tartakovsky noted that one of the most important recurring patterns in Stevens’ poetry is that of the recurrent pair of sonically similar words—as in the “sea” and “she” that come up at the start of the first and second stanzas of “The Idea of Order at Key West.”  Linguists have told us that acoustically similar words are actually less well reproduced in the memory than other words, and tend to become confused—but that rhyme words are, in fact, remembered well.  So Stevens works with a combination of words that aid in the recollection of argument or thesis, and words that actually blur rational or argumentative distinctions.  I’d be very interested in seeing a fully-worked out analysis of Stevens drawing on this insight.


Of course there was much more to see and hear (and eat and drink and argue over) at the conference, but I’m glad I was pulled into the little demimonde of the Stevensians, and I’m glad to see rhyme returning as a category of serious critical analysis.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

John Ashbery and the Poetics of the Art World

"Jimmy and John" by Fairfield Porter, depicting James Schuyler and John Ashbery


You're probably feeling something like despair if you know you can't make it to the University of Louisville for the 1:00 pm session of the The Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 (Humanities room 111).  You'll miss Andrew Epstein talking about Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground and their relationship to the New York poetry scene of their day, and you'll John Gallaher talking about Michael Benedikt as a nexus figure of the New York School.  You'll also miss me giving a paper called "John Ashbery and the Poetics of the Art World," but don't fret about that. The text—minus any tweaking it may receive among the nervous grad students in the lobby of the Brown Hotel or at the Mayan Cafe, where the Gnostic poets hang out and summon mystic wisdom over bourbon and tamales—is here:


John Ashbery and the Poetics of the Art World 

 …I had to find a way out of the woods.
Now, in some cases, this is easy—you just walk straight along a road and pretty soon
you're out of the woods and there are suburban backlots. In my case,
though, it wasn't that simple, though it wasn't extraordinarily demanding either—I
just lay down in a boat and slept, Lady-of-Shalott style. Soon I was gliding among you
taking notes on your conversations and otherwise making a pest of myself. 
I pretended to be angry when onlookers jeered and cows mooed and even the heralds told me to shut up, 
yet at bottom I was indifferent. I knew my oracles
for what they were—right about 50% of the time—and I also knew their accuracy wasn't 
an issue.

 In these lines, from John Ashbery's Flow Chart, the poet presents himself as Tennyson's Lady of Shalott—and the comparison is apt. Consider the plot of Tennyson's poem. The lady is confined to her tower, isolated from the thriving world of business and love beyond the walls. She weaves a tapestry of what she sees, and in so doing becomes a symbol for many things. Firstly, she is a woman in a world profoundly masculine in its institutions and structures of power. Moreover, she is a laborer in a time when labor conditions—particularly in textiles—are becoming more and more rationalized and alienating. Finally, as a tapestry weaver she is a figure for the artist. All of these things, Tennyson implies, are alienated, confined, set off from the world where barges ply their trade on the river and young lovers meet to wed. We can think of Tennyson’s poem almost as an allegory of John Ashbery's situation, in that three kinds of alienation—having to do with his sexuality, his relation to conventionally productive labor, and his status as a certain kind of poet in midcentury America—led him to a peripatetic life and what me might call a poetics of wandering or drift.

If you want to think about Ashbery and queerness, John Shoptaw, in On the Outside Looking Out has done a better job of it than I could ever do. If you want to think about Ashbery and alienation from labor, read his poem “The Instruction Manual” and write the article about that poem that still needs to be written. If you want to hear about Ashbery and the importance of the art world he entered as a young man in New York at the end of the 1940s, I hope I can help. 

Drawn into the orbit of precocious literary friends at Harvard, John Ashbery joined an artistic milieu in New York City that was intensely aestheticist and that emphasized the autonomy of the art object and the primacy of the medium itself. Ashbery's poetry, too, has been, non-dogmatic and intensely concerned with the medium of language. His particular form of aesthetic expression involves aleatory techniques and linguistic disruptions, and, especially, a kind of narrative drift. Characteristically, his form of narrative, or pseudo-narrative, drifts and observes, and Ashbery does not expect his oracles to change the world: the poetry that comes from them will exist for itself, not—as in the hopes of modernist greats like Yeats, Pound, or Eliot—for the renovation of the culture. Unlike those poets, Ashbery is as pure an aesthete as any poet of the 1890s. This is not to say that he cannot be read politically—he has been, and has welcomed it—but the characteristic qualities of his work stem from early formative experiences in a very particular moment of the New York art world of the late 40s and early 50s, a moment perhaps more extreme in its commitment to aesthetic autonomy than any other in the American 20th century. 

The New York to which Ashbery moved in 1949, when he began his graduate studies at Columbia, was the epicenter of America's visual art scene, but it is easy, given the later lionization of the abstract expressionists, to misremember the situation of American art in 1949. The art world then was small and isolated. When John Bernard Myers, a founder of the Tibor de Nagy gallery, was putting together artists for his early shows, he found the art world tiny indeed: "it should be stressed that… almost everyone knew everyone else" and "all of them lived in Manhattan." The possibility of connecting with the world beyond the art scene, let alone influencing it, seemed extremely remote: during her 1947 visit to New York Simone de Beauvoir came to the conclusion that "there is no informed public" for the arts—hyperbole, to be sure, but a good indicator of how America in the late 40s appeared from a European intellectual's position. And native intellectuals tended to concur, even in the use of hyperbole.

The alienation that permeated the art world did not manifest in political radicalism, but rather in an emphasis on the isolated artist's authenticity, and on the autonomy of the work of art. This was, after all, the era of The God That Failed, with its documentation of the left's painful disillusionment with Communism, as well as the time of the blacklist and the general suppression of the American left. Even the once-radical Partisan Review crowd had largely retreated from politics by 1947, and, having abandoned first Stalin, then Trotsky, they now bent their knees to art. The depoliticization left many artists adrift, a condition Robert Motherwell expressed in in 1944 when he said "The artist's problem is with what to identify himself…. Hence the tendency of modern painters to paint for each other."

The preservation of individual authenticity and autonomy, rather than any movement on behalf of class or faction, was the artist's mode of opposition—and the means of opposition was the autonomy of the work of art. As Thomas B. Hess put it in ARTnews, “There was nothing to do but paint. The self-directed community became self-oriented. Art replaced revolution in its eschatology…. Never before in painting had art itself so preoccupied the artist.” Ad Reinhardt was more extreme in his formulations than most, but he was not out of step with the general temper of the art world when he declared that art "should have no connection with anything, not God, Morals, Politics, Movements, Aesthetics, Philosophy, Science." Even that soberest of academic art critics, Meyer Shapiro, declared that the artist must now "cultivate his own garden."

But poets came to the garden of the postwar art world, too: a phenomenon, we may be surprised to note, unprecedented in American history. John Ashbery offers two statements about what that felt like in 1949:
I hadn't realized it, but my arrival in New York coincided with the cresting of the 'heroic' period of Abstract Expressionism, as it was later to be known, and somehow we all seemed to benefit from this strong moment… We were in awe of de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko and Motherwell and not too sure of exactly what they were doing. But there were other things to attend to: concerts of John Cage's music, Merce Cunningham's dances, the Living Theatre, but also talking and going to the movies and getting ripped and hanging out and then discussing it all over the phone.
And
This is not the place to wonder why the poets Koch, O'Hara, Schuyler, Guest and myself gravitated toward painters, probably it was merely because the particular painters we knew happened to be more fun than the poets… 
If we look beyond the flippant assertion that the poets entered the world of the painters because the painters had more fun, we will not only find a more substantial explanation for the melding of the poetic and artistic scenes—we will also understand more about how the poets "seemed to benefit" from the fervent experimentalism of the art world.

The first thing to acknowledge is that in the years after the war it was by no means an obvious thing that poets should become involved in the world of art. Although there had been exceptions, like Wallace Stevens, who frequented artist's studios and studded his prose with references to painting, the French-style alliance of poets and painters was rare in early 20th century America. As Dore Ashton puts it in her seminal study of the New York School painters, The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning, "One of the peculiar aspects of traditional American culture had been the total isolation of the different arts. American artists noted early in the century that, unlike artists on the Continent, they had no literary companions." This only began to change after the war, when "well-developed suspicion on both sides" faded, and there were "attempts to bring about a rapprochement."

These attempts were certainly successful, if we are to judge by the reception Ashbery and his peers received among the artists and, even more importantly, the gallerists. Indeed, it is in part through the schemes of gallerists operating in difficult commercial circumstances that the rapprochement of different creative worlds in postwar New York came about.

New American art, in the postwar years, did not generally find patrons among the upper class, but among a small part of the professional middle class, and among other artists. Sensing an opportunity to expand the market beyond visual artists, Myers intuited that "more interaction among all the arts might speed us on our way." At a time when there was no off-Broadway theater as we know it in New York, Myers learned from a friend of Parisian theater in which plays by poets were given sets by contemporary artists and featured music by avant-garde composers. So Myers worked with Frank O'Hara, James Merrill, and others to found the Artists' Theater in 1953. Soon, poets, composers, and visual artists were working together on a variety of productions—including John Ashbery's play The Heroes, with sets by the artist Nellie Blaine. The Artists' Theater, and projects like it, became the crucible in which was forged a multi-arts creative scene, an audience composed of people concerned with, or practicing, different arts, and a culture of collaboration. Born of a desire to survive the indifference of the general public, such a scene, centered on aesthetics and artistic production for artistic producers, was a far cry from the political movements in which artists of the 1930s tended to come together and collaborate. It was a scene in which Theseus, in Ashbery's play, could deliver the line "I now possessed the only weapon with which the Minotaur might be vanquished—the indifference of the true aesthete" and have it received by an audience with approving laughter.

One way to think about the presence of the poets in the postwar art world is to see it as the natural path for experimentally-minded poets, given the aesthetic ferment of American painting and the relative conservatism of American poetry under the rising sign of the New Criticism. But to see the experiment-oriented art world as a draw for experiment-oriented young poets is to see only one part of a dialectical process: it is just as true to say that the art world encouraged and emboldened the poets who entered it to become more experimental. The poems Ashbery wrote at Harvard are not terribly outré by the literary standards of the time. But much of the work he wrote in postwar New York went much further afield.

The sociologist Howard S. Becker notes that "art works always bear the marks of the system which distributes them," and that and poets depend on the audiences reached by their publishers for "shared traditions" and "background against which their work makes sense." When we consider where much of Ashbery's early writing was being published, and to whom it was being distributed, we see that it was going to a sharply defined audience, one rooted in the art world and accustomed to a degree of abstraction and experiment alien to the literary establishment of the times—to sensibilites more attuned to Willem de Kooning than to de Kooning's literary contemporary Cleanth Brooks. Much of Ashbery’s early writing appeared in Semicolon, a journal published by art curators and distributed at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, the Artists' Club, and the Cedar Bar—all art world institutions. Moreover, the small collections of poems that precede and follow Yale's publication of Some Trees are both art world productions: 1953's Turandot, with four drawings by Jane Freilicher, was published by Tibor de Nagy gallery in 1953; and The Poems, with silk screen work by Joan Mitchell, published in 1960 by Tiber Press (a publisher of the visual arts). It should come as no surprise that Ashbery came to see the poetry of the literary establishment as too conservative: he and his early audience were immersed in a milieu that accepted and encouraged experimentalism far more than did the established literary institutions of the time.

Within this restricted sphere of reception, there was an even smaller sphere: the little coterie of the poets themselves, a hyper-aesthetic demimonde within the New York aesthetic demimonde. As James Schuyler put it, "John and Frank and I were almost like a mutual admiration society," affirming and enabling one another. Glossing Schuyler's comment, David Lehman underlines the sense of a small world removed from both the literary establishment and the general reading public: "since acceptance or rejection of [their] works was an indication of neither success nor failure, the poets looked to themselves as ultimate arbiters." Tennyson's friends rejected poems like “The Lady of Shalott” and urged him to be a moralist for the broad reading public—the poet of “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” the laureate; Ashbery's were satisfied if he delighted them and them alone.

The situation reminds one of a remark made by Pierre Bourdieu in his examination of the rise of autonomous art. In the absence of pressures to conform to religious, political, or market forces, or to otherwise conform to the norms of a public, artists find themselves "in a position to rebuff every external constraint or demand, are able to affirm their mastery over that which defines them and which properly belongs to them, that is, the form." If we understand this, we understand Ashbery.

Monday, February 23, 2015

More from The Kafka Sutra: The Laurel Review's Prose Poetry Issue


Great news!  The latest issue of The Laurel Review is about to drop, and it amounts to a new anthology of the contemporary prose poem, edited by the redoubtable John Gallaher.  Nin Andrews! Maxine Chernoff! Dan Coffey! My Lake Forest College colleague Joshua Corey! Arielle Greenberg! Kate Greenstreet! Piotr Gwiazda! Philip Metres! Craig Morgan Teicher! Keith Tuma! G.C. Waldrep! And many more!

Included in this embarrassment of riches are two prose poems of my own, "Leopards in the Temple" and "The Ball Rider," both from a larger series called "The Kafka Sutra" (which lends its title to the book of my poems coming out later this year, The Kafka Sutra, from MadHat Press).  The premise of "The Kafka Sutra" is simple: what if Kafka had written the Kama Sutra?  It's a kind of détournement or rewriting of a number of Kafka's parables and stories (here, "Leopards in the Temple" and "The Bucket Rider") to make them into instructions for sexual pleasure.  Or, since this is Kafka we're talking about, sexual frustration.  Here are some from the series, published a while ago in The Cultural Society, with accompanying images by Sarah Conner.

Friday, February 20, 2015

What “What Work Is” Is: The Importance of Philip Levine



I met Philip Levine only twice, and both times thought he was a son of a bitch and really liked him for it.  But that’s not what I want to talk about.  I want to talk about why he was an important poet.  He was often called “the poet of work,” and in a sense he was: his imagination was formed by a decade and a half of hard manual labor in industrial Detroit.  But it’s not just that he understood the look and feel and sound and smell and hurt of work and found words for those things.  He understood something about what modernity demands from us, the kind of work beyond ‘work’ in the conventional sense that our culture leaves to us, and he understood how difficult, how close to impossible, that kind of work has become.  This, for me, is why he is an important poet.

When I say ‘modernity,’ I mean the world that emerged in the wake of the wars of religion that wracked Europe in the 17th century.  Much of the vehemence with which these wars were fought came from the depth of the convictions held by both Protestants and Catholics that what was at stake was not merely realpolitik, but something much greater: ideals, ultimate beliefs, salvation.  The fate of the state was also the fate of the soul, since the state was entwined with religion, and was justified by its adherence to particular views of the good and the holy.  It was Hobbes who taught the civil-war weary English to step away from the idea of the state as the guardian of high ideals of the good and sacred (he taught the similarly weary French the same, almost at the same time—he wrote Leviathan in Paris, and its pages were translated before the printer’s ink had dried).  Instead of looking upwards, to whatever shining ideal the state could embody, he looked down, at the bare minimum people needed—basic protection of one’s life and property—and asked that the state provide this and leave ideals, salvation, and ultimate goods alone.  What is the intrinsic purpose of mankind, and how can the state guide us to it?  That, for Hobbes, was a question that could only lead—and had demonstrably led—to bloodshed.  Let’s let the state limit itself, he suggested, to keeping us from killing and stealing, and the rest can take care of itself.  Much of classical liberalism proceeds from Hobbes’ assumptions: John Locke, for example, maintained that the state should provide security from foreign and domestic violence, but that it should have nothing to do with guiding us, collectively, to some higher ideal: instead, it leaves us all to pursue the goals that seem highest to us.  The pursuit of happiness, we call it, in America.

Philip Levine understood that this modern charge to define and pursue our own sense of purpose and our own kind of fulfillment wasn’t a simple thing.  Indeed, it was a task we might not be up for, a necessity for which we, as isolated individuals with all kinds of more immediate needs and only our own feeble resources to fall back on, may never achieve.  He saw the quiet heroism required to live the way the modern world demands we live.  The recognition of this quiet heroism, and the fact that we may fail to achieve it, is what he greatest and best-loved poem, “What Work Is,” is about.

The poem beings with a fairly conventional sense of work, and the work that is required just to get it:

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours of wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants.

There, quietly and clearly, we have the alienating world of modern labor, the impersonality of it—and set against such alienation, the idea of brotherhood, even when the brother you see is not your own.  But there’s more:

You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.

We thought we knew what work was: the grind of it, the humiliation of seeking it, the powerlessness, the way it turns brothers into a crowd of anonymous rivals.  But it turns out that knowing those things is not knowing what work really is after all.  And what’s that, then? It’s what the speaker’s brother does: he survives labor and pushes himself further, to do something that, for him, is not alienating.  It may not be your idea of the good or of salvation: you may think the music for which your brother lives is the worst ever invented.  But you can see what the real work is: defining for oneself, in the absence of collective guidance, some notion of fulfillment or meaning, and pushing oneself to rise above mere survival in the pursuit of that saving idea of the good.  There’s a kind of sublimity in the brother pushing himself to define and pursue the good—a dark-sky, raining, sad-slouched doggedness utterly uncaptured by the breezy sunshine of a phrase like “the pursuit of happiness.”  Levine sees how this pursuit, a burden the modern world places on our broad or narrow shoulders, is just like the pursuit of the other kind of work, and that it involves:

...a sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours of wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No…”

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Seven Romantic Poets Reviewed in Seven Lines: New at Lute & Drum



New poetry by Nathaniel Mackey! Mark Scroggins (who else?) on Adorno and model soldiers!  A story by Magdalena Zurawaski! And much, much more—including my own modest contribution, a review of seven Romantic poets in seven lines, the first in a Lute & Drum series called "Seven Things."  It's a fine new journal with a very slick design, and you can find it all here.

Here's a description of the contents from J. Peter Moore's editorial introduction:

This specter of aesthetic sociality emerges in Magdalena Zurawski’s “The Lamb,” when the professor protagonist realizes that literary meaning, like veterinary obstetrics, depends upon an a community of attentive midwives. Similarly in Edric Mesmer’s sequence from Strawberry Island, exilic regionalism undermines individual property rights: “local axiom—no one ever really owns an umbrella.” In our first installment of Moonlighting, a recurring feature that focuses on writers’ para-literary avocations, Mark Scroggins takes us through the anti-social exercise of raising an army in one’s basement, as he discusses his long-time obsessive-compulsive affair with model soldiers. In our other recurring segment, First Thought/Seven Things (a list of one-sentence reviews addressing a single topic) Robert Archambeau gives us the bathroom graffiti guide to Romantic Poetry. 
Rounding out the issue, Ben Lee’s review of The Feel Trio mines the gentle ferocity of Fred Moten’s poetic insistence (after Édouard Glissant) that diasporic metaphysics begin with the “consent to not be a single being.” And finally, in murmuring tones of awakened consciousness Nathaniel Mackey returns us to those verdant boughs of sugar maple: “So it was green loomed out my window.” In his “Said to Have Been Heard to Say Hush,” we find perhaps the clearest annunciation of that lost past that pervades present day Riddle, that “Remembered moment lamenting / its exit.” In Mackey’s hand, the indestructible city, the little city of Lute & Drum, becomes an upper room where music plays on in our absence.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Bourgeois Keats and the World of Capital


"The Eve of St. Agnes," by Millais



Cockney? Sure.  Aesthete? Absolutely.  But John Keats also took many of his cues from the dominant culture of his time and place, and the dominant culture of nineteenth century London was as bourgeois as a lace antimacassar on an Empire settee.  Consider, for example, his narrative poem “The Eve of St. Agnes.”  For all of its medieval trappings—creepy gothic castles, feuding aristocratic dynasties, pale maidens, daring youths, bloated knights sprawled out dozing in the great hall with haunches of beef, flagons of ale, and drowsy hounds in attendance—the fundamental ideological architecture of the thing is of a piece with that of the great nineteenth century novels that taught the burgeoning middle class how to be, well, middle class.

Firstly there’s the emphasis on a kind of inner synthesis, a balancing of the individual’s urges.  This is the stuff of many a bildungsroman: passions and reason, sociability and self-containment, sympathy and judgment—in one way or another, we find the great genre of the middle class creating protagonists who learn to police themselves.  They model the creation of a personality type the sociologist David Reisman saw as typical of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the inner-directed subject.  Such subjects were the result of populations torn from the tradition-bound life of pre-industrial villages, where mores were inherited from, and enforced by, a longstanding and close-knit community.  In an age of increased mobility, greater personal freedom, and the disruption of old communities—in, that is, the capital-accumulating societies of western Europe and America in the nineteenth century—a new way of life called for a new kind of person.  As Reisman put it, the new society bred “character types who can manage to live socially without strict and self-evident tradition-direction.”  They do so with reference to an “internal gyroscope,” which allows them to reach some form of moral balance in the absence of external direction from established community.  My personal touchstone for this kind of novel is Jane Eyre, where the passions symbolized by fire and the anti-social self-control symbolized by water threaten to overwhelm Jane until, at the end, we see her control and balance them, as she brings the chastened Mr. Rochester a tray with a glass of water and a candle—the emblems of forces she has learned to control.

In “The Eve of St. Agnes,” we see a synthesis of the bodily urges and the spiritual ones.  We begin and end with images of unmitigated bodily bloat—in the form of a feast-hall of overstuffed and indolent nobles—and equally unmitigated spiritual sterility—in the form of a holy man, cold and alone, counting his rosary in ashen reverie.  In between, we find the tale of Madeline, a pure maiden who goes to bed without eating in hopes of seeing a vision of her future husband on St. Agnes’ eve, the night when such things happen, according to ancient lore.  Unknown to Madeline, the young Porphyro, scion of a rival noble house sworn to enmity with her own, has found his way into the castle and, planning to seduce her, has hidden himself in her chambers.  The poem associates him with bodily lust and with the warm colors—red, purple—and her with spiritual purity and cold colors like white and silver.  When the would-be lover sees Madeline in her chamber, we get a kind of fusion of the two symbolic colors, foreshadowing the union of spiritual and bodily elements in the birth of love:

       A casement high and triple-arch'd there was,
       All garlanded with carven imag'ries
       Of fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass,
       And diamonded with panes of quaint device,
       Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes,
       As are the tiger-moth's deep-damask'd wings;
       And in the midst, 'mong thousand heraldries,
       And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings,
       A shielded scutcheon blush'd with blood of queens and kings.

       Full on this casement shone the wintry moon,
       And threw warm gules on Madeline's fair breast,
       As down she knelt for heaven's grace and boon;
       Rose-bloom fell on her hands, together prest,
       And on her silver cross soft amethyst,
       And on her hair a glory, like a saint:
       She seem'd a splendid angel, newly drest,
       Save wings, for heaven:—Porphyro grew faint:
       She knelt, so pure a thing, so free from mortal taint.

       Anon his heart revives: her vespers done,
       Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;
       Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
       Loosens her fragrant boddice; by degrees
       Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees:
       Half-hidden, like a mermaid in sea-weed,
       Pensive awhile she dreams awake, and sees,
       In fancy, fair St. Agnes in her bed,
       But dares not look behind, or all the charm is fled.

Well, it goes on, with the sheer spiritual innocence of Madeline converting Porphyro’s bodily lust into something finer, and the physical presence of Porphyro leading Madeline out of the realm of spiritual visions and into the reality of love.  It’s another one of those grand bourgeois moments of synthesis, forging an inner ethos for the characters.  Sure, we’re in a castle, but we’re miles from the way actual medieval romances like, say, Gawain and the Green Knight, work, with their tests of whether a protagonist can live up to an externally determined virtue.  With Keats, we’re much closer to the bildungsroman than to the medieval quest romance.

And then there’s the matter of the ending of “The Eve of St. Agnes.”  The story of young lovers from feuding families inevitably brings Romeo and Juliet to mind, but Keats’ tale is significantly different.  Shakespeare allows the tragic death of the lovers to bring the feuding houses together: we end with Montagues and Capulets reconciled, and inasmuch as there is any redemption in the play, it comes in the form of a restoration of harmony among noble houses.  In Keats, the emphasis isn’t on the houses at all—dynasties simply aren’t as important in the world of the nineteenth century bourgeoisie as they were in Shakespeare’s day.  Instead, we end with the two lovers escaping, not to an assured happiness, but to a storm.  They leave Madeline’s clan behind, not for the security of Porphyro’s ancestral house, but to hazard their fortunes in a world of large and brutal forces, indifferent to their happiness or unhappiness:

       They glide, like phantoms, into the wide hall;
       Like phantoms, to the iron porch, they glide;
       Where lay the Porter, in uneasy sprawl,
       With a huge empty flaggon by his side:
       The wakeful bloodhound rose, and shook his hide,
       But his sagacious eye an inmate owns:
       By one, and one, the bolts full easy slide:—
       The chains lie silent on the footworn stones;—
       The key turns, and the door upon its hinges groans.

       And they are gone: ay, ages long ago
       These lovers fled away into the storm.
       That night the Baron dreamt of many a woe,
       And all his warrior-guests, with shade and form
       Of witch, and demon, and large coffin-worm,
       Were long be-nightmar'd. Angela the old
       Died palsy-twitch'd, with meagre face deform;
       The Beadsman, after thousand aves told,
       For aye unsought for slept among his ashes cold.

A little domestic pair, removed from stability, exposed to the indifferent forces of the storm—it’s an image of the modern bourgeois couple, cut free from the traditional bonds of extended family, hoping for the best in a world in which they may or may not thrive, but which they cannot control.  The presence of the beadsman and his “ashes cold” reminds us that fertility and worldly happiness depend on couples like Porphyro and Madeline, and that retreat from the stormy world they hazard is a retreat from modern life itself.  We root for them, the way we root for any young couple setting out in the world capitalism has made.  We wish them well, and tremble.