Tuesday, April 29, 2008

New York and New Haven

This is written from New York City where I will be a few days before going back up to Hudson to participate in an event planned for May 3 by the CLMP (Council on Literary Magazines and Presses). I’m staying in a loft in Soho belonging to Walter Brown, an architect and one of my staunchest friends. In fact, I used to live here (1972-1976) when he and I were partners. We were one of the early pioneers who revamped the old industrial spaces of the area south of Houston and above Canal Street. of Manhattan and made living spaces of them. In my first book (All Roads at Once, 1976) there are a couple of poems based on the move down here, one titled “Measuring a Rooftop in the Cast-Iron District” and another “In Duane Square.” Duane Square is actually in what’s now called Tribeca, though it wasn’t back then. The poem, apart from other topics, accurately predicts that Duane Square will be developed as residential real estate, and that’s exactly what happened. SoHo in the early 70s (it used to be written with upper-case “h,” an abbreviation indicating “South of Houston Street”) was a strange no-man’s land, with very few residents. There were no grocery stores or services, just warehouses and light industry. There was one restaurant, laconically called “Food,” and two bars, the Broome Street Bar and Fanelli’s, the latter dating back probably to the 1890s when these blocks were Manhattan’s red-light district. I remember that Donald Judd had a beautiful space on the ground floor of one of the cast-iron buildings, with glass walls so that you could see inside where his taciturn and enigmatic sculptures were installed. A number of important artists were Soho residents in those days, among them the photographer Aaron Rose, one of the earliest pioneers, who bought a building there in the early 60s and renovated it himself. (I wrote the introductory essay for a collection of his photographs published by Abrams Books in 2001.) Strangely enough, both Fanelli’s and the Broome Street Bar are still going strong; but little else in Soho is the same. Few of the early art galleries remain, and the overwhelming atmosphere is of upscale consumption and partying. At least the original buildings are still there, wonderful architectural fantasies of 19th century cast-iron construction, unlike any other part of the city.

To get to New York I first drove to New Haven and stopped there to revisit places I knew from the five-year period I lived there. (I taught poetry writing there off and on in Yale’s College Seminar program.) I’m familiar with and fond of the sprawling campus, which is not at all sequestered from the surrounding city; main New Haven streets cut right through it. There’s a wide repertory of architectural styles for the campus buildings, beginning with Connecticut Hall, the 18th century structure where the university held its first classes, to 19th century Gothic, to 1930s Gothic, and several Neo-Georgian buildings whose architectural idiom feels more New Englandish than Gothic style possibly could.

I also paid a visit to the Yale Center for British Art, where, in addition to the permanent collection, two fascinating shows were up. One was called “A New World: England’s First View of America.” Its contents include the surprisingly detailed watercolors made by John White, who accompanied Raleigh on his voyage to “Virginia” (present-day North Carolina). The Algonquian people who lived there, their towns, flora and fauna, all are carefully rendered in startling detail. It was a privileged moment, before colonization and disruption of the lives of the original inhabitants, a disruption that soon became murderous. The first foreshadowing of coming conflicts was the lost colony of Roanoke. So many improbable events gather in the story of England’s efforts to plant themselves in the New World. The exhibition includes the famous engraving depicting Pocahontas in English dress after her marriage to John Rolfe. And she wasn’t the only Indian to be brought to London. Does anyone know if these early visitors married and had children in England? Do they have living descendants? It would be interesting to hear that they do.

The other exhibition was titled “The Lure of the East” and assembled a large number of paintings, watercolors, and prints having to do with British travelers to the Mid-East. Some of the painters’ names I already knew like David Roberts, Edward Lear, William Holman Hunt, and John Frederick Lewis, but never were so many works on Mideastern themes gathered together, at least, as painted by English artists. Jewel-like colors and an English Romantic “take” on what Muslim societies were like. The accompanying pedagogical material for the show made the by now well-acknowledged point that these Westerners didn’t truly understand the world they were trying to portray. But then their portrayal of Western society of the time wasn’t so realistic either. Idealization, picturesqueness, stylization: that was the norm. How far away it seems from contemporary art. But the show does register the intense and active fascination that figures like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Richard Burton, and T.E. Lawrence felt when confronted with an alternative to their own culture. And clearly Burton and Lawrence were anything but ignorant where the Muslim world was concerned. They took the trouble to learn Arabic and study Islam and the social organization of the culture they adopted. It makes a sharp contrast to the American invasion of Iraq, where no one involved knew much about the country they were dismantling, where not even officers spoke a word of Arabic, and common soldiers had no sense of what Islamic religious practice was. But such facts shouldn’t be surprising in a society where only a fraction of high school seniors are able to locate Iraq on the globe. And with an uninformed electorate, how can democracy be effective?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Forty Years Ago

There’s been a lot of interest this year in the fortieth anniversary of the pivotal year 1968—Tom Brokaw’s History Channel special, a PBS documentary on the 1960s, numerous articles in magazines. Going back to it all, I stumble on memories from that time, even though I wouldn’t say my participation was at the red hot center of things. This week marks the anniversary of the protests at Columbia, where I was a graduate student in French literature in the years 1965 to 1970. I wasn’t on hand for the demonstration because I had gone to Paris (with Ann Jones, to whom I was then married) on a Fulbright Fellowship, with the plan of doing research for my dissertation. My topic was Melville’s influence on Camus; probably the most interesting moment of that effort came when I came to see Camus’s widow in the apartment she’d shared with her late husband in the rue de Fleurus. She allowed me to look at his library, which did in fact include several Melville novels, in the Giono translation. Camus read a little English, but the only English-language novel of Melville’s he owned was Moby-Dick.

We got news of the protest at Columbia at second hand, through telephone conversations and the newspaper. Student bodies all over the country had been involved for a couple of years in demonstrations and draft-card burnings directed at the U.S. invasion of Vietnam; so the idea of political activism had become familiar, a regular feature of student life of that time. Earlier in the year we’d seen the Tet offensive and the My Lai massacre, both as bloody as it gets. Added to that was the recent shock of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, which seemed to spell the doom of non-violent resistance. At Columbia, the primary issues concerned university implication in the war effort and, besides that, a plan to annex part of Morningside Park to build a new gym. Students felt that colonizing one of the few parks accessible to Harlem residents for a gym to be used for a university made up of predominantly white students and faculty was unacceptable. Hence the strike, which quickly led to a peaceful occupation of the Administration building. Within days university president Grayson Kirk called in the police to halt the demonstration, which they did without being very nice about it: heads were cracked with nightsticks, and so forth. Because of that decision, Kirk was eventually asked to resign.

But student unrest began to spread globally. On May 6 there was a student protest in Paris that soon gathered momentum, especially when labor unions began to join forces with the students. The ensuing uprising came to be referred to as “les evénements de mai” (“events of May”), and here I was a first-hand witness of what happened. Several months earlier students had protested the firing of Henri Langlois, the popular director of the Cinemathèque française; when he was reinstated, students realized that they possessed political power. They went forward with that in May, very soon abandoning peaceful means and setting up barricades in the streets once the government had dispatched special anti-riot forces (known as the C.R.S.) to stop demonstrations. Demonstrators heaved paving stones and Molotov cocktails at these troops, set cars on fire, and daubed political slogans on walls in the Latin Quarter—things like “L’Imagination au Pouvoir” (“Power to the Imagination”) and “Plus je fais la révolution, plus je veux faire l’amour.” (“The more I work for the revolution, the more I want to make love.”) Tear-gas was used almost daily, and you could smell it a mile away. As Americans we had to be careful not to be swept up in the periodic police raids, which never discriminated between demonstrators and bystanders. All pedestrians in range were pushed into paddy wagons and taken to HQ for incarceration and questioning. Any foreign citizen caught in these raids was summarily deported within hours.

Even so, I would walk over to the Latin Quarter every couple of days or so to see what was going on. Public transportation was on strike, and there were frequent electricity shut-offs; if you had no car, you had to walk. At one point I got inside the Théâtre de l’Odéon (which had been taken over by the students) and watched the proceedings. People jumped up on stage and gave speeches until the crowd decided they’d said enough; they were told to step down and then another person took his or her place at the mic. The grand climax was an 800,000-person march down the Champs Élysées, composed of students, striking workers, and other sympathizers. DeGaulle had been castigating the demonstrators from the beginning, referring to the whole thing (using an archaic word) as “un chienlit” (literally, a “crap in the bed,” more generally, “a mess,” “chaos”) and blaming it on “foreign agitators” like Rudi Dutchke, one of the most visible activist university students. And then De Gaulle vanished one weekend; no one knew where he was. It turned out he’d gone to Germany to parley with the West German government, with the idea of soliciting German assistance in case of an armed uprising against his regime. To enlist the support of France’s historical enemy was regarded by most citizens as a shocking betrayal of France and the French. Much more successful politically was De Gaulle’s decision to stage a national referendum the following summer. Which the left accurately described (accurately, I’d say) as a plebiscite. The Gaullist government got the electoral endorsement it needed, and the “revolution” came to a halt.

To what degree the “events of May” led to reforms in the French university system and in French society at large, I leave to the historians. As for myself, I’m sure the impact of witnessing those events has never entirely dissipated. All the more considering other events that occurred during the remainder of 1968: the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the crushing of the Prague Spring initiative by Soviet forces, several demonstrations that solidified the nascent Women’s Movement, the brutal treatment of demonstrators at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, the murderous assault on student demonstrators at Plaza Tlatelolco in Mexico City (which impelled Octavio Paz to resign his diplomatic post), the five-month strike at San Francisco State (which resulted in the institution of the first Black Studies Department in America), the first beginnings of the Gay Liberation Movement… well, I could go on, it was an exciting year.

No one living through those events could fail to be shaped by them. And they have influenced what I’ve written in incalculable ways. The most direct account I’ve given occurs in a book-length poem I published two decades after the Sixties. Notes from a Child of Paradise is a three-thousand-line poem in three parts telling the story of my life from 1965 to 1969, meeting Ann Jones (a student at Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement and later a Comp Lit scholar), our marriage and stay in Paris during 1967-1968, and then the aftermath. Published in 1984, it’s of course now out of print, which is too bad because, apart from some sections of Lowell’s Notebook and a few short poems by Richard Tillinghast, I know of no poems that deal with this pivotal moment in national and international history. I suppose the explanation is that American poetry since the 1960s has been overwhelmingly devoted to the lyric. There’s also the contemporary prejudice against political content, and it isn’t possible to tell the story of the Sixties without taking a position. I saw that the account would need to be political and presented it in that framework. What is clear to me is that the division (or fault-line) of American society that became apparent during the 1960s has remained what it was. There are two ideologies in the United States, and we know which one has been dominant since the Reagan era. The results are there for everyone to see: a vast military culture spending billions upon billions on munitions and standing armies instead of improving the lives of citizens, the unending Iraq war, immense differences in income, a shocking percentage of people without health insurance, the Katrina disaster, an extraordinarily large prison population, global warming, and destruction of the habitat. How is it possible not to see these things?

Friday, April 18, 2008


There aren’t many contemporary aphorists in the U.S.A. of 2008, and I know several of them: Yahia Lababidi, Dan Liebert, and James Richardson. You might say that writers who work in this rare form constitute, what, an underground of adepts, a kind of apothegmatic freemasonry. A recent book edited by James Geary, Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists put all of us in it, which is pretty astonishing, considering that it also includes the Bible, Socrates, Seneca, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, Landor, Kafka, Karl Kraus, and Elias Canetti. But then it also has Mencken, Dorothy Parker, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen, just to re-establish a sense of proportion.

More than ten years ago I published a little chapbook of aphorisms titled The Pith Helmet with Harry Duncan’s Cummington Press, and that’s where James Geary found those of mine he included in the collection. The chapbook began with a little introduction, reproduced below.


In an article about Chamfort published a few years ago, the critic Joseph Epstein remarked that aphorisms are no longer written, even so managing unobtrusively to place a few of his own in the argument. Present-day writers seem unwilling to publish aphorisms openly. Readers who have a taste for them have to turn to figures from the past--Bacon, La Rochefoucauld, Chamfort, Dr. Johnson, Lichtenberg, and Nietzsche, to mention only the most famous. Their excellence isn’t in question, but the ecological protectionist in us all might not be satisfied, might want to assure continued survival for the vanishing aphorism. A purely circumstantial reason for the aphorism’s decline is, no doubt, the absence of a venue for it. Trade book publishers don’t seem to have put out any collections of new aphorisms for several decades, and few authors are willing to write what can’t eventually be printed. It may be that only an older readership even knows what they are.

The etymology of “aphorism” tells us that it is formed from Greek apo and horizein, “away from” and “to bound.” And so an aphorism is a statement that defines, just as the horizon, a related etymon, is the line dividing earth from sky. The aphorism assists the Latin philosopher’s distinguo and in Latin is also called the maxima sententia: not “the maximum sentence,” however judgmental, but rather “the most general statement” or “axiom.” This term gave us the synonym “maxim.” It presupposes a community at ease with the practice of making distinctions based on reflective reason.

Beginning in the 17th century, especially in France, aphorisms are most often associated with mondanité and in that mode undertake to reveal, more with wit than indignation, society’s selfishness and vanity. With Vauvenargues and Chamfort the distinction between aphorism and epigram begins to blur, a tendency observable all the way to the end of the 19th century. Heightening one’s conversation with concise and amusing observations about human behavior was a prized social grace among literate members of the beau monde. Because mondanité was the prevailing ideology, irony and paradox rather than sarcasm and invective were the desirable qualities in conversational as well as written aphorism. Its crystallizations affected the texture of all kinds of writing in France, including the novel, so that it has been possible for editors to extract “aphorisms” from the fiction of Proust, as can be done from a number of other writers of the same period, Oscar Wilde the most notable in English. When there was an available Boswell, casual conversation could also be sifted for treasure. If we'd seen more Boswells in the 1890s with the presence of mind to jot down on their shirt cuffs some of the “good things” said during those long belle époque suppers chez Maxim’s, how many more brilliant relics of this ephemeral verbal art would have survived.

In the twentieth century we find fewer aphorists, though Karl Kraus’s bitter political ironies are rightly valued, and his admirer W.H. Auden is often quoted in his aphoristic moments (which resemble those of the 19th century Anglican cleric Sydney Smith), even though he never actually published aphorisms as such. From private meditations, Paul Valéry culled several groups of sayings, including the Analecta and Mauvaises Pensées, and, though the great majority have to do with the art of thinking or of poetry, they have a bearing on conduct at large, since it involves, among reflective people, mental operations not utterly different from the processes of poesis. The beautiful meditations of Antonio Porchia, an Argentinian, count as aphorisms, but in a spiritual vein drawing on a tradition that begins with Augustine and passes through Pascal and Kierkegaard.

In the early 1980s I came across some aphorisms published by an American (a naturalized American, actually). A small press whose name I don't recall brought out a substantial collection of aphorisms by a little-known writer named Francis Golffing; reading these examples convinced me the aphorism was still possible as a genre, and I set out to try my hand at it. Whether or not a contemporary, pluralist audience can be expected to agree on questions of general judgment, I make an argument for the aphorism as a form of prose that is written to survive the attentive reading normally reserved for poetry. Much of its virtue arises from concision. Brevity must somehow be reconciled to balance and rhythm, repetition avoided except when used expressively. In some of these collected here, I've taken a broader view of what aphorism might be, based on some of Lichtenberg’s less classifiable examples, Valery’s Rhumbs, or the cryptic fragments of René Char.

A final definition of the aphorism is “a short, pithy statement,” where “pith” keeps its old association with strength, as in Byron’s satirical comment (from Don Juan) on the prevalence of certain English names: “Among them were several Englishmen of pith:/Eighteen named Johnson and sixteen named Smith.” Dr. Johnson and the Rev. Sydney Smith would have to number among these “Englishmen of pith,” no doubt, and, although wisdom has a bad name in our time, the idea of protective strength is allowed, a shade, say, from dangerous ultra-violet rays no longer screened out by our atmosphere’s damaged ozone layer. That’s the sense I intended by titling this collection The Pith Helmet.


Here are a few examples from Geary’s anthology:

“The most excellent jihad is that for the conquest of self.”

“No person hath drunk a better draught than that of anger which he hath swallowed for God’s sake.”

“It belongs to human nature to hate those you have injured.”


“If you analyze your happiness you become sad.”

—Miguel Hernandez

“A man never discloses his own character so clearly as when he describes someone else’s.”

—Jean Paul Richter

“The only end of writing is to enable the reader better to enjoy life or better to endure it.”
—Samuel Johnson

These are a minuscule percentage of the number found in Geary's book. I like the aphorism. It helps us endure and at the same time provides enjoyment, often in the form of chuckles.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Post to Pillar

Graywolf has just now published New European Poets, edited by Wayne Miller and Kevin Prufer—English-language translations of 290 European poets writing in forty languages. Most of the translators are reckonable or noted or famous poets. Only a few of the poets being translated are well known, so the book has opened new ground for me.

One thing I notice is that not so many of the poems fiercely resist summary, paraphrase or decipherment. To judge by this anthology, Europe has begun to pull away from experimental extremes. Meanwhile, the April issue of Poetry is a translation issue, and one of the new poets in it, Hakan Sandell, is presented as having founded a new movement called Retrogardismen (Retrogardism), whose purpose is to recapture some of the abandoned means of earlier poetry for new poems being written today—apparently because he felt that Language movement was too “contemptuous” of its own medium to produce work that the public would follow. I suppose we could connect his stance with developments in the U.S. currently being described as “post-avant,” shorthand for “post-avant-garde” or perhaps “post-postmodern.”

That’s all fine, but these jargonistic terms are really awful. They fracture the ear, certainly, and they also keep perpetuating a misleading temporal metaphor for artistic production, a fiction based on beforeness and afterness. That is, they suggest that experimental work, opaque, difficult, disjunctive work, non-linear, surrealistic, fragmented work, dissonant, high-low, raw, radical work, and whatever other terms apply, is somehow always ahead in time of other kinds of artistic production. One of the earlier blogs here (February 29) exploded the fiction that the avant garde can now be considered new, that it inhabits the future in ways that art more readily understood can never be. And perhaps it truly was new in the second half of the nineteenth century, when Rimbaud first kicked over the glittering epergne of Parnassianism. By now, however, the “avant garde” is moving toward its 200th birthday. That doesn’t disqualify it where enlightened interest and appreciation are concerned, no more than regular, speech-based modes for conveying content in poetry are disqualified merely because they have centuries of successful use behind them. That goes for poetry using meter and rhyme as well. QED: It long ago stopped making sense to adopt the temporal metaphor as a way of locating or describing approaches to writing poetry.

What would work better is a spatial model. We should envision two parallel, forward-moving boundaries running from earlier centuries up to the present and on from here into the future. One boundary (let’s say, leftward, or westward on the compass) exhibits the aesthetic of what used to be called the avant garde, in all its disparate variety. The other boundary, to the right hand or the east, embodies the sequential, speech-based mode. Neither liminal vector is going to be abandoned. We will continue to see work produced close to either extreme, I mean, as long as art continues to be made. Individual artists will establish themselves between the two boundaries at the point where they believe they produce their best work. They may locate themselves closer to one guard-rail during one period of their active life as artists, and closer to the other at a later period. (For example, early Auden was close to the westward boundary; later Auden moved toward the eastward boundary. Early Adrienne Rich is situated close to the eastward boundary; later on, she moved westward.) Meanwhile national fashion will sometimes swing westward toward the harder stuff, and sometimes eastward toward the more familiar style. These swings are dictated by many forces, including the psychological numbness that always sets in when everybody does the same thing over and over, decade after decade. We seem now to be moving eastward after about two decades in the west. Artists who were at one date unfashionable may suddenly be “discovered” when the swing carries taste over to their side. Others will go out of fashion for the same reason. Once these spatial coordinates are in place, it’s stimulating to begin placing artists somewhere along the continuum: Khlebnikov is far west, Mandelshtam much less so, Akhmatova closer to the eastern boundary. Early Lowell is west, Life Studies Lowell is east, the Lowell of History back west again.

Anyway, my main assertion is this: we should drop the temporal metaphor used ad nauseam to describe where art is going. Otherwise we’ll soon see blogs posted under the title “The Latest Thing: Post-Post-Post-Post-Modernism.” Nonsense! And not even a good joke.