Ange Mlinko burns a Norton

Ange Mlinko (photograph: Poetry Foundation)

Ange Mlinko wrote  a bracingly stern review of Norton’s new edition of its anthology Postmodern American Poetry for the 15 April 2013 issue of The Nation.  Ms Mlinko includes a promising bit from the introduction by the anthology’s editor, Paul Hoover: “Hoover is at pains to define [postmodernism] in terms made famous by the theorist Frederic Jameson: ‘It is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think about the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place.'”  What programmatic statement could set out a worthier goal for a collection of lyric poetry?  History is an entire dimension of experience, and our age systematically obscures that dimension.  We urgently need poetry that can pick us up, turn us around, and set us down with our eyes facing history.

Yet as Ms Mlinko tells it, this book loses sight of that or any other worthwhile goal.  Most of it is given over to poems whose chief merit is that they bear some “marketable label” such as “Flarf, ‘Newlipo,’ and ‘Googlesculpting,'” “‘Conceptualist‘ and ‘postlanguage lyricist.'”  The review closes with the last six lines of Gary Snyder’s “Axe Handles“; my favorite bit of the review is this half-paragraph in which Ms Mlinko brings her own axe down on Professor Hoover’s book:

The traditional anthologist gathers good poems according to his sensibility; the postmodern anthologist, eager to jettison sensibility, has only fashion and popularity to guide him. Poets become mere representatives of their niche, with no relation to their neighbors in the table of contents. Pity G.C. Waldrep, “affiliated with the Old Order River Brethren, a conservative Anabaptist group related to the Amish”*: he’s sandwiched between Vanessa Place, whose Dies: A Sentence is one unrelenting 130-page sentence (only five pages of which are on offer here), and Catherine Wagner, who offers the ditty beginning “Penis regis, penis immediate, penis/ tremendous, penis offend us; penis….” There is no transcendence in poetry anymore, according to Hoover. But I assure you, some Hells are real.

Ms Mlinko mentions some of Norton’s other anthologies, among them Bernard M. W. Knox’s Norton Book of Classical Literature.  I used that one for years in one of my classes; Professor Knox was the perfect example of Ms Mlinko’s “traditional anthologist [who] gathers good poems according to his sensibility.”  Professor Knox was perhaps the last major Classical scholar to practice “taste criticism” of ancient Greek and Latin literature.  He was a throwback to the days when schoolboys started Latin at five and Greek at six, coming to university having read each of the canonical works of classical antiquity two or three times, so that by the time they emerged as university dons there was a non-trivial probability that they might have something of value to say about them.  Professor Knox’s erudition, and the taste it underpinned, formed a monument on the order of a great public building.  Reading his books is like visiting the Acropolis.  Yet even his anthology was profoundly eccentric.  The principle of selection seems to be an illustration of the roots of lyric in other genres of Greek literature and the influence of Greek lyric on Latin literature.  Greek lyric poetry is not very much represented, however.  So when I taught from it, I used to bring in translations of Greek lyric poems from outside the book and assign them in conjunction with the Greek selections to which they responded and the Latin selections which responded to them.  The students were always quite interested to see the influence lyric had on Roman prose writers, especially on the way that an historian like Livy develops a focus on individuals.  I really ought to write something about that someday.

Anyway, Professor Knox had a great advantage over Professor Hoover.  Ms Mlinko asks why any professor would assign a class a textbook like Postmodern American Poetry.  Her answer: “Either because you and your friends are in it, or because it’s hip and so are you.”  All of Professor Knox’s authors had been safely dead for many centuries before he assembled his book, freeing him from any temptation to give preferential treatment to authors who are in a position to place orders for large numbers of books.

*Ms Mlinko’s description of George Calvin Waldrep as a poet who is “affiliated with the Old Order River Brethren, a conservative Anabaptist group related to the Amish” and who deserves our pity for his placement in this book may lead one to imagine a latter-day Whittier, who contrasted his rustic Quakerism with a bewildering urban sophistication, but that isn’t quite what Mr Waldrep is like.  Here’s a set of five poems of his that appeared in Typo in 2004.  I think they make it clear that he was aiming for just the spot in which Professor Hoover has placed him.  On the other hand, his sequence “The Batteries” (published as a chapbook in 2006, then built into his 2007 book Disclamor and reviewed here) is sensational, and lives up to the programmatic statement “an attempt to think about the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place.”

Good editing separates a sage from a provocateur

I’ve seen some good stuff on the internet lately.  There are people who read this blog who won’t like some of it.

1. Kenan Malik writes:

One thing should be clear. The violence across the Muslim world in response to an American anti-Islamic film has nothing to do with that film. Yes, The Innocence of Muslims is a risibly crude diatribe against Islam. But this obscure film that barely anyone had seen till last week is no more the source of the current violence than God is the source of the Qur’an.

I don’t presume to know whether God is the source of the Qur’an, but Mr Malik is surely right to argue that these acts of violence spring from efforts by their perpetrators to present themselves as the champions of Islam.  As such, they are symptoms of the internal politics of the countries where they take place, politics which may well be shaped by military and other interventions from outside powers, but which must always be analyzed in terms of the interests and understandings of their actual participants.

2. An article about cartoonist R. Crumb in Vingt Paris Magazine lists many of Mr Crumb’s more unwholesome obsessions, then goes on:

I suppose the uncomfortable truth about Crumb’s reputation as a comic satirist is that he’s no good when he really needs to be. Unlike, say, Dick Gregory or even Randy Newman (whose song Rednecks is also written from a racist’s point of view), Crumb is too happy to wield irony like a sledgehammer when it comes to discussing race.

As a result of Mr Crumb’s lack of subtlety, his irony often collapses and his depictions of racist imagery are left without satiric point, as racism plain and simple.  Likewise, his sadomasochism-inspired sexual imagery rarely has much point beyond the confessional, and is merely disgusting.

Mr Crumb does not attempt to defend his work; last year, faced with the prospect of demonstrations against him, he canceled plans to appear at the Sydney Opera House, saying “‘I can’t explain why I drew all those crazy pictures’, he told the press. ‘I had to do it. Maybe I should have my pencils and pens taken away from me. I don’t know.'”  The author of the article mentions that Mr Crumb had given him the identical response when he’d asked him to justify his work some years previously, then remarks “It’s a stock response that’s so polished it shines. It makes you wonder if, one day, he might get bored of saying it and try for an answer instead.”

I would not defend the racial imagery in Mr Crumb’s work.  I still chuckle when I think of the moment in the 1994 documentary Crumb when one of his critics looks at a comic strip depicting the crudest possible African American stereotype and says “This is actually an attack on black people.”  What made me laugh then and now is the word “actually.”  As if it were apparently something else, but a close analysis by the most sophisticated methods available would show that it was actually an attack on black people.  It was so obviously an attack on black people that the existence of a debate about the question of whether it is such an attack is hilarious.

The article summarizes Mr Crumb’s attitude towards his subject matter thus:

Using racial stereotypes in his work is something that Crumb freely admits to, saying that ‘there’s a perverse part of me (that) likes to take the heat for all that stuff’. One of his most famous examples is here in the exhibition – a picture called Jive with Angel Food McSpade. It’s a drawing of a freakish, thick-lipped, bug-eyed woman, who seductively raises her leg and claims she was ‘Attacked in the mud because I was a SEXY TEASE’.

The arguments about drawings like Jive with Angel Food go like so: ‘He’s subverting those images and throwing our own racism back at us’. Or ‘he’s just trying to shock you, Liberal’. Or ‘he’s genuinely a racist. He’s not even being ironic’. And they play out like a game of rock, paper, scissors that nobody knows how to stop.

For his part, Crumb says the controversial stuff pours out of him because it’s wired into his brain, from all the pop-imagery he saw on television and in comics and magazines. He’s certainly not a racist, he says, but he’s even less of a censor – and if this kind of stuff is in there, then who is he to keep it in?

This strikes me as a fair statement, and a sad one.  At his best, as in his illustrated version of Genesis, Mr Crumb shows that the feverish, undigested contents of his psyche are unsettlingly similar to the feverish, undigested ideas at the heart of the most powerful ideologies in the modern world.  It is a shame that Mr Crumb has not been consistently subject to a stringent and demanding editor who fully understands his project and capabilities.  It is unreasonable to expect the same person to serve as author and editor of the same work; in that sense, Mr Crumb is quite right to ask “who is he to keep it in?”

3. Blogger Steve Sailer lists the following as the categories of Americans whose opinions about foreign policy are taken seriously in official Washington:

Today, the acceptable limits of foreign policy discourse in America are set by:
– The good old military-industrial complex
– Saudi bribery
– Liberal Democratic Zionists
– Right 2 Protect liberal crypto-imperialist/busybodies
– Angry Likudniks
– Quasi-CIA “democracy” endowments that organize color-coded revolutions
– Foreign policy thinktanks (who are more important the more activist the foreign policy)
– White guys who need to serve in the military so they can get affirmative action points to become firemen
– Yahoos who should be apprised that when football isn’t on TV, professional wrestling can always be found year-round, so there’s no need to watch the news
– Oil companies (who are left to quietly play the “Can’t we all just get along?” Rodney King role)
They are all overseen by a national media that sometimes seems most concerned about the looming threat that an isolationist Father Coughlin could arise again.
So, the only feasible foreign policy alternative to stake out is: “The President’s foreign policy isn’t quite crazed enough!”

When Mr Sailer expresses his right-wing opinions about race or sex or economics, I can usually find good reasons to disagree with him.  I wish I could disagree with him here as well.

4. Via Arts & Letters Daily, here’s a sensational little essay about Ezra Pound by Luciano Mangiafico at Open Letters Monthly.  Mr Mangiafico presents the following as an “excerpt from Canto 81”:

What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage…
Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
Made courage, or made order, or made grace,
Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.
Learn of the green world what can be thy place…
Pull down thy vanity
How mean thy hates
Fostered in falsity,
Pull down thy vanity,
Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity,
Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down…

These lines do appear in Pound’s Canto 81, but Mr Mangiafico has edited them heavily.  Here is how of the ending of the poem looks in the edition of the Cantos I read (New Directions, 1996):

What thou lovest well remains,

the rest is dross

What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee

What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage

Whose world, or mine or theirs

or is it of none?

First came the seen, then thus the palpable

Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,

What thou lovest well is thy true heritage

What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee

The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world.

Pull down thy vanity, it is not man

Made courage, or made order, or made grace,

Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.

Learn of the green world what can be thy place

In scaled invention or true artistry,

Pull down thy vanity,

Paquin pull down!

The green casque has outdone your elegance.

“Master thyself, then others shall thee beare”-

Pull down thy vanity

Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,

A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,

Half black half white

Nor knowst’ou wing from tail

Pull down thy vanity

How mean thy hates

Fostered in falsity,

Pull down thy vanity,

Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity,

Pull down thy vanity,

I say pull down.

But to have done instead of not doing

This is not vanity

To have, with decency, knocked

That a Blunt should open

To have gathered from the air a live tradition

or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame

This is not vanity.

Here error is all in the not done,

all in the diffidence that faltered…

Last night I read Pound’s original aloud to Mrs Acilius; it is undeniably thrilling, but just as undeniably Mr Mangiafico’s redaction, spare and direct, takes on a splendor that fades in Pound’s profusion of images and references.  And the first half of the poem is Pound’s usual, barely tolerable, complete with quotations from Theocritus and John Adams.  I only wonder why he neglected to tattoo it with Chinese characters.

Pound, like Mr Crumb, reminds me of the old story about the town with only two barbers.  One barber is faultlessly shaven, with a perfectly presented head of hair; the other wears stubble on half his face, and a shapeless mop of hair.  The discerning customer goes to the slovenly barber, since he is the one who cut the well-coiffed one’s hair.  Likewise, as an editor of poetry Pound made inestimable contributions to the works of T. S. Eliot and other eminences of the High Modern; it is our great loss that Pound found no one to do for his work what he did for theirs.

It’s better to be good than to be perfect

This weekend I noticed two outstanding pieces of writing.  Theologian Ben Myers’ As I Sit Dying is a spellbinding little narrative, quite funny in bits (for example, when he reveals that if he keeps up the way he’s been going, he probably won’t live more than another 50 years.)  Here’s a snippet:

No, death and dying notwithstanding, I guess all I’d really like to say is that I’m glad to have been alive. That alive is a very good thing to be, and I have not a single word to say against it. That I have loved songs and food and drink and night time and the way friends’ voices sound around a campfire in the dead of night. That I have loved animals, especially dogs and cats, and if I had ever got to know horses properly I would have loved them too. That I have seen whales, have witnessed their rolling bigness, and have loved them very much. That I have loved books and reading, have loved re-reading certain books and remembering what it was like to read them for the first time. That I have loved the faces of my friends (I hope somebody will remember those faces after I’m gone). That I have loved strangers’ faces too, old men and old women and beautiful women whose faces I fell in love with and never forgot even though I only saw them once, across a crowded room or in a train or on a bridge as I walked by. That I have loved my wife’s face and my wife’s words and my wife’s skin and the way my wife thinks when she is happy or when she is sad or when she is tired or first wakes up, wide awake and already hatching plans while I am still trying to dream. That I have loved my –
My children.
As I sit here now, as I sit dying, my heart slowly wearing out inside me, that is all I really want to tell you. I have loved all of it and I don’t have a word to say against it. To tell you the truth, I even love the things that I have hated. Doing wrong, being wronged, this whole miserable business of hurt and misunderstanding and mistakes. I have loved all that because I have loved forgiving and being forgiven. Yes, that’s what I have loved most of all. If I could do it all over again I would make all the same mistakes and let all the same mistakes happen to me too, if it only meant that I could have the chance, just once, to forgive, to be forgiven.
Life is very wonderful, and the meaning of it all is the forgiveness of sins, that’s what I’d like to tell you. I am glad to have learned that. I am glad to have been alive and to have made so many mistakes and to have borne the brunt of so many too. It is wonderful, all of it.

Heather McHugh‘s poem “In Praise of Pain” turns the old maxim “Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good” inside out.  Professor McHugh suggests that the perfect might not be particularly good, certainly not good for us.  Here’s the second of its three short stanzas:

For beauty’s sake, assault and drive and burn
the devil from the simply perfect sun.
Demand a birthmark on the skin of love,
a tremble in the touch, in come a cry,
and let the silverware of nights be flecked,
the moon pocked to distribute more or less
indwelling alloys of its dim and shine
by nip and tuck, by chance’s dance of laws.

The old man loves his old woman, as Erasmus liked to say; he loves her not in spite of the marks of age and approaching mortality that set her apart from her younger self, but because of them, because without them she would not be herself, any more than the girl she used to be would have been herself without the follies and other infirmities of youth.

Martin Espada reads “Alabanza”

“The Meeting,” by John Greenleaf Whittier

Paul Elmer More’s essay on Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, mentioned below, quotes Whittier’s poem “The Meeting.”  The poem is long, and not aimed at 21st century literary sensibilities.  It begins with a long passage from a visitor who reproves Whittier for attending the silent meetings of Quakers, deprecating them as “dull rites of drowsy-head” and extolling the outdoors as the proper place to worship the God who created nature.   In response, Whittier explains that wilderness is full of distractions, while the surroundings within the meetinghouse focus the mind on God.  More was an excellent critic, and chose the perfect lines to quote:

But nature is not solitude:
She crowds us with her thronging wood;
Her many hands reach out to us,
Her many tongues are garrulous;
Perpetual riddles of surprise
She offers to our ears and eyes;

And so I find it well to come
For deeper rest to this still room,
For here the habit of the soul
Feels less the outer world’s control;
The strength of mutual purpose pleads
More earnestly our common needs;
And from the silence multiplied
By these still forms on either side,
The world that time and sense have known
Falls off and leaves us God alone.

I recommend the whole poem.  Not least because the theme developed in my earlier post, that Quakerism tends to obscure the importance of habit in human life, is partially belied by Whittier’s lively interest in this topic.

A seasonal acrostic

An acrostic is a poem in which the first letter of each line, in sequence, will form a name, motto, or other message.  Acrostics often commemorate holidays; for example, many Americans once marked Mother’s Day with a song that began “M is for the many things she gave me.”  And a Google search for “Christmas acrostic” brings up this many results.   

Apparently Arnold Schwartzenegger, who for some reason that eludes me is the Governor of California, views his vetoes as holidays.  Note the heartwarming free-verse acrostic in his latest veto message to the state legislature, via Wonkette :


The Nation, August and September 2009

It’s been a busy few weeks in the Acilius household, and the blog has suffered.  Here are quick notes on four recent issues of The Nation.

nation 21 september 2009

21 September: A special issue on food brings a bit of New Left- Old Right convergence as Michael Pollan writes in praise of Wendell Berry. 

Alice Waters writes about the idea of “Edible Education,” and describes what happens in schools where the cafeteria not only serves wholesome food, but involves students in the processes of preparing and cleaning up after the meal.  Waters quotes Thomas Jefferson on the virtues of the yeomanry, and concludes with a claim that “Edible Education” can help to build an ocietyethic of stewardship and with it a caring society. 

nation 14 september 2009

14 September: A call for an investigation of the CIA’s conduct in recent years addresses claims that such an investigation would demoralize the agency’s staff.  The article quotes former NSC official Richard Clarke:

Richard Clarke has little patience for it. “What bothers me,” he says, “is the CIA’s tendency whenever they’re criticized to say, If you do your job, if you do oversight seriously–which Congress almost never does–then we’ll pout. Some of us, many, will not just pout; we’ll retire early. Our morale will be hurt.” And if morale is hurt and the agencies are gutted, they argue, the country will be exposed to attack. In other words: “If you, Congress, do oversight, then we’ll all die. Can you imagine FEMA or the agricultural department saying we’re all going to retire if you conduct oversight?” Clarke asks in disbelief.

A harshly negative review of a retrospective of the works of artist Dan Graham mentions a work the reviewer considers superior to Graham’s,  Mel Bochner and Robert Smithson’s Domain of the Great Bear, which appeared as an article in Art Voices magazine in Fall of 1966, and thus “inaugurated this genre” of magazine piece as conceptual art, the genre in which Graham would earn fame.   

A review of a new selection of Wallace Stevens’ poetry mentions many poems,but leaves out that we might have expected to see discussed in a magazine with its issue date, “The Dwarf”:

Now it is September and the web is woven.

The web is woven and you have to wear it.

The winter is made and you have to bear it.

The winter web, the winter woven, wind and wind.

For all the thoughts of summer that go with it,

In the mind, pupa of straw, moppet of rags.

It is the mind that is woven, the mind that was jerked

And tufted in straggling thunder and shattered sun. 

It is all that you are, the final dwarf of you,

That is woven and woven and waiting to be worn,

Neither as mask nor as garment but as a being,

Torn from insipid summer, for the mirror of cold,

Sitting beside your lamp, there citron to nibble

And coffee dribble… frost is in the stubble.


nation 31 august 200931 August: Benjamin Barber points out that public space

is not merely the passive residue of a decision to ban cars or a tacit invitation to the public to step into the street. It must be actively created and self-consciously sustained against the grain of an architecture built as much for machines as people, more for commercial than common use.

He argues that public art is an essential part of public space.  Getting rid of cars is the easy part; filling a space with art, and with people who are alive to that art and to each other, is harder.

The Economist, 5 September 2009

economist 5 september 2009I can’t resist quoting some lines of verse that appear in this week’s obituary for Stanley Robertson, a Scotsman who made his living filleting fish in a cheap eatery in Aberdeen and who made his name as a storyteller, a bard who had learned a vast number of traditional tales and songs of the Scottish Travellers and who held audiences spellbound on both sides of the Atlantic.   Here’s a playground rhyme Robertson liked:

Eenie meenie mackaracka,

Rair roe dominacka,

Soominacka noominacka,

Rum tum scum scoosh!

A short article describes “Quest to Learn,” a new school in New York City that does away with the division of the day into class periods themed around particular subjects and replaces it with “domains” in which students work collaboratively using various methods that have been studied by educational psychologists and developed by video gamers.  The video game theme is incorporated so deeply that tests aren’t called tests, but “Boss Levels.” 

Also in this issue, a review of Richard Dawkins‘  The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, takes a rather mystified tone in discussing the existence of so many people in the USA who disbelieve in evolution.  Facing the idea of “Intelligent Design,” the reviewer asks why an intelligent designer would not have created an ecosystem in which all life-forms lived out full life-spans with a minimum of fuss and bother.  “All trees would benefit from sticking to a pact to stay small, but natural selection drives them ever upward in search of the light that their competitors also seek. Surely an intelligent designer would have put the rainforest canopy somewhat lower, and saved on tree trunks?” 


Tips For Aspiring Poets

Never let it be said that a career in poetry is not viable. You can become a successful poet by simply following the handy tips listed below.

PD*40018071) Think Positive. Nobody likes a whiner. And poets always seem to be harping on the negative. Americans don’t want to know how to die. They want to know how to lose weight. How to get rich. How to sustain that erection! Be the poet of erectile dysfunction, and you might just be the poet who picks up a fat check.

2) Take Your New Positive Attitude And Direct It Towards The Paying Customer. The customer is your friend. Your typical poem really doesn’t seem to pay much attention to the living retail customer.  The time you spend trying to figure out what’s wrong with the people who don’t buy your poems is time you could spend fixing the poems.

3) Think About Your Core Message. Your average reader might like a bit of fancy writing, but at the end of the day he will always ask himself: What’s my takeaway? He will inevitably ask himself: Is this poet making sense? Of course, poets can dodge questions about what they mean by making a fuss about the complicated way they say it. But eventually your shrewder customer is going to see through the packaging to the product.

4) Strive To Be Relevant. Once you start making sense you can turn your attention to making sense on a topic that concerns lots of people. Here’s an example: a lady finds a human finger in her Wendy’s chili.

5) Overcome Your Fear. You may be thinking: OK, I see how I can reach a mass market, but what will other poets say about me? You are right to be afraid. There will be some jealousy. Some envy. But take comfort, you’re not alone. Flipping though a stack of poetry books published in the past couple of years I found a lady poet named Ai. Ai wrote a poem called “Delusion.” It starts:

I watched the Trade Center Towers
burning, then collapse
repeatedly on television
until I could see them clearly
when I shut my eyes.
The blackened skies even blotted out my vision,
until I screamed and threw myself on the floor

See! It can be done! Here we have proof that you can grab something off the front page, stuff it in a poem, and still hold your head high. But I sense there’s some evil little demon sitting on Ai’s shoulder: Fear of success. The reader thinks: “OK! Now we’re finally getting somewhere. Sure, I’ve already seen the World Trade Center collapse on TV, but maybe I’ll pick up a new twist here.” But then what does Ai do? She forgets about the World Trade Center and goes off on some depressing story about her sister!

Ash Wednesday

No juniper tree

No juniper tree

T. S. Eliot was a student of Irving Babbitt’s at Harvard.  Afterward, Eliot often claimed to be a disciple of Babbitt’s.  “Once to have been a student of Babbitt’s was to remain always in that position,” Eliot wrote.  Eliot sent letters to Babbitt under the salutation “Dear Master.”  Babbitt never answered any of these letters.  Babbitt never made it clear whether he was repelled by “Dear Master” or he disliked Eliot for some other reason. 

Be that as it may, in 1989-1990 I spent a good deal of my time reading books by Babbitt and his circle of followers.  Since Eliot was the most famous of those who wished for admission to that circle, part of that time I studied Eliot.  My favorite of his poems is “Ash Wednesday.”  Today is Ash Wednesday.  So:


Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?