Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

A categorized index of all work that has appeared on this site is available by looking under the current month in the Blog Archive section and selecting Index.

This site is listed in BlogCatalog and
Literature Blogs
Literature blog

Tuesday, January 1, 2019


The index now features hypertext connections. Simply click on any title below to read it.

Though this listing serves, I think, a clear purpose, not every posting falls easily into the categories. One essay might equally be placed under literary theory or medieval texts while another might fit under memoir, politics, or travel. Translations with comment might be either criticism or translation. Poke around a bit.

The categories are:

1. speculative, familiar, performance pieces, and other essays

2. literary theory

3. Greek texts (and a couple of Latin)

4. medieval texts

5. other criticism
A. 16th-19th century
B. 20th century to the present
C. Asian texts
D. songs
E. Notes on Recent Reading
F. Rereading the Classics
G. Every Reader's Poets

6. translation

7. poetry

8. politics

9. memoirs

10. travel

1. Speculative, familiar, performance pieces, and other essays
Agnostic Credo and Vita (October 2015)
Axiology and Subjectivity (October 2014)
Annual Report (August 2014)
Beards (December 2013)
Biking (November 2009)
Biking as a Spiritual Discipline (April 2017)
Cell Phones (June 2017)
Cookbooks (April 2014)
Dead Reckoning (February 2011)
Deer (December 2012)
Documents of the first Surreal Cabaret (March 2012)
Documents of the second Surreal Cabaret (June 2012)
Documents of the third Surreal Cabaret (October 2013)
Documents of the fourth Surreal Cabaret (July 2014)
Documents of the fifth Surreal Cabaret (February 2015)
Drugs and Religion (June 2016)
Dust: a meditative riff (November 2009)
Food for the Gods (December 2011)
Hippie (April 2011)
Immortality (July 2012)
Iowa Communards (December 2011)
Knowing and Not Knowing (October 2018)
A Library’s Commonplaces and Curiosities (May 2011)
The Mannerly Hedonist (February 2013)
Notes and Inserts (June 2016)
Polka (November 2012)
On Pronunciation and Pedantry (September 2015)
In Praise of Bias (November 2014)
Still Biking (November 2012)
A Structural View of Certain Oracles (August 2015)
Supermarkets (October 2010)
Taking Off (November 2009)
This and That (September 2017)
This and That 2 (September 2018)
An Uninformed Take on Ballet (June 2018)
Walking the Via Negativa (February 2018)
Worn Tools (June 2013)

2. Literary theory
Afloat on the Ocean of Words (April 2016)
Allusion (March 2015)
Art and the Marketplace (April 2010)
Efflorescences of Female Poets (July 2018)
False and Homophonic Translation (March 2018)
The Familiar Note in Poetry (January 2017)
The Formation of a Christian Rhetoric (April 2011)
How and Why to Signify (July 2011)
Idea of Comedy (January 2012)
The Inconsequential Bayonets of Art: Militant Rhetoric and the Avant-Garde (May 2010)
Lament for the Loss of the Avant-Garde (March 2010)
Millenarian Rhetoric and the Avant-Garde (August 2010)
On the Proper Ends of Literary Study [James Seaton] (July 2014)
Placing the Popular in the Structure of Literature (October 2010)
The Pleasures of the Familiar in Literature (June 2016)
Poetry Amid the Fierce Chaos of the World (December 2009)
Prof. Wellek, Prof. Leavis, and Prof. de Man (December 2015)
The Question of Literary Value (August 2014)
A Range of Visual Poetry (December 2017)
Riddles and Poetry (March 2015)
The Signifying Monkey Talks Literature (April 2010)
Some Notes Toward a Theory of the Avant-Garde (October 2013)
Song Lyrics as Poetry (October 2018)
Sontag's "Against Interpretation" (September 2016)
Sweet Treason: Translating Lyric Poetry (November 2009)
Thoughts on Mythology (March 2013)
Transformation of Convention (August 2013)
What is Poetry? (February 2012)
Winged Words: Notes on the Oral Performance of Poetry (May 2010)

3. Greek texts (and two Latin)
Aphrodite’s Bed: Love in the Homeric Hymn (August 2010)
The Birth of Erato: Lyric, Vision, and the Spread of Writing (January 2010)
Dionysos and the Pirates (February 2012)
Ekphrasis in Apollonius: Jason's Cloak (May 2017)
Gorgias (February 2010)
The Greeks Meet the Yogis (December 2018)
Hermes and the Art of Poetry (March 2013)
Longinus' Sublime (May 2012)
Notes on Pan (June 2014)
Oedipus and the Meaning of Polysemy (July 2011)
Pindar's Athlete in Pythian 8 (January 2018)
Poetry's Long Memory [Horace] (July 2016)
Professors Kick the Willy Bobo [on Athenaeus] (December 2009)
The Role of Rhetoric in Theocritus (February 2011)
The Role of Wine in Nonnus' Dionysiaca (February 2016)
Sappho’s Holy Tortoise Shell: Eros and Poetry in Ancient Greece (December 2009)
Seneca the Elder (March 2010)
A Skeptic's Faith [Sextus Empiricus] (January 2015)
A Structural View of the Ephesiaca (April 2018)
Two Brief Notes on Daphnis and Chloe (May 2018)
Two Passages from Marcus Aurelius (June 2011)
The Web of Myth in the Hymn to Heracles (June 2012)

4. Medieval texts
The Aesthete of Desire: Lancelot and Courtly Love (July 2012)
The Aesthetics of Ambiguity in a Medieval Lyric (December 2012)
Aesthetic Principles of the Middle English Romance (July 2010)
Appropriation of Biblical Narrative in Patience (February 2013)
Bernart and the Music of Ideas (September 2016)
The Buddha in Europe: the Apologue of the Man and the Unicorn in Barlaam and Ioasaph (January 2011)
Chaucer’s Version of the Golden Age (June 2011)
A Conventional Ending in a Middle English Romance (September 2011)
Courtly Love in Romance of the Rose (August 2012)
Distant Rhyme in Two Medieval English Lyrics (August 2011)
The Early English Carol (June 2010)
Geoffrey of Vinsauf (April 2010)
Figures of Love in Lydgate's Temple of Glas (January 2014)
Functions of Alliteration in Thirteenth Century Lyrics (February 2011)
Hypermetric Lines in Beowulf (January 2011)
Icelandic Antinomies in the Grettis saga (January 2019)
An Introduction to the Troubadours (January 2010)
Mechthild von Magdeburg (July 2010)
A New Look at Jaufré: Amor de Lonh as Criticism (December 2010)
Odin and Poetry (December 2015)
Openings in the Middle English Romance (July 2010)
The Pearl-Poet’s Use of Link-Rhymes (November 2011)
Phonetics and Semantics in the Last Line of Beowulf (March 2011)
Piers Plowman and the Man in the Moon (October 2011)
The Prima Etade of Literary Ambition [Petrarch] (March 2011
Transformation of Convention in Early Minnesang (April 2011)
Two Early Ballad Tales of Robin Hood (October 2014)
The Uses of the Monstrous: Chaucer's "Anelida and Arcite" (October 2018)
William IX (September 2010)
Who is Piers Ploughman? (June 2013)

5. Other criticism

A. 16th-19th century
Ambivalence in Thomson's The Castle of Indolence (March 2012)
The Archaeology of Gray's "The Progress of Poetry" (November 2017)
Baudelaire's "Painter of Modern Life" (July 2017)
Big Bill Otter's Sprees and Frolics (November 2013)
The Bloody Venus of Marlowe's "Hero and Leander" (November 2018)
A Decadent's Dilemmas [Dowson] (March 2015)
Does Crabbe Look Forward or Back? (February 2016)
Dolce's Aretino (September 2015)
The Double Plot of Salem Chapel (December 2016)
Gascoigne's "Notes of Instruction" (September 2013)
Godwin's Theatre of Calamity (September 2015)
Herrick the Divine (August 2014)
Irving's Soft Romanticism (September 2017)

Keats' "Thing of Beauty" (November 2016)
A Lost World of Allusion [Nicholas Breton] (May 2018)
Marius the Epicurean as a Modern (April 2015)
Moby Dick and the Density of the Aesthetic Text (January 2016)
"Monk" Lewis, Mr. Coleridge, and Popular Taste (July 2015)
A Note on Dryden and "Dramatick Poesy" (September 2012)
A Note on Radcliffe's The Italian (October 2012)
Pierce Penniless (May 2013)
The Play of Convention in Shakespeare's Sonnet 153 (April 2017)
The Problem with Swinburne (June 2015)
Rimbaud's Use of Montage (October 2016)
Shelley”s “Ode to the West Wind” as Structuralist Charm (May 2011)
Sir Thomas North's The Moral Philosophy of Doni (September 2013)
The Skeptico-Semiotico-Mystic: Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (June 2015)

Skepticism and Poetry in Keats' "The Eve of St. Agnes" (February 2015)
A Structural View of Meredith's The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (June 2017)
The Texture of Traherne’s Religious Thought (October 2010)
Thematic Continuity and Development in the Poetry of Christopher Smart: the Jubilate Agno and the Minor Poems (November 2010)
Thomas Love Peacock and the End of Poetry (August 2017)
Travelers [Marco Polo, Twain, Robert Byron](April 2012)
Trollope's Appeal (December 2012)
Two Notes on Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance (July 2014)
The Use of Nostalgia in Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life (August 2015)

B. 20th century to the present
Another Look at The Seven Lively Arts (June 2013)
Apologia for a Fondness for Pound (November 2012)
Archives of the First Majority Gallery (December 2018)
Are Uncle Tom's Children Bound by History? (April 2014)
The Artist as Demiurge: Seligmann on Space (December 2017)
Banjo (March 2017)
A Brief History of Negritude (February 2017)
Burns' and Lovick's Vietnam (November 2017)
Celebrities of Performance Poetry (July 2018)
Comics (February 2010)
Conrad's Shadow-Line (June 2014)
The Critical Palimpsest: Black African Literature through White American Eyes (January 2010)
Dada in America (April 2012)
Eisenstein's Strike and the Problem of Realism (April 2013)
Epiphanies in Dubliners (May 2016)
An Explication of Stevens' "A Primitive like an Orb" (October 2017)
False Translations (August 2016)
The Fetish of the Primitive in Twentieth Century Art (April 2015)
A Few Films (November 2016)
A Few Proletarian Writers (March 2012)
Flash Reviews of Thirty African Novels (November 2011)
Flyin’ with the Muses: Kirpal Gordon’s Eros in Sanskrit (May 2011)
Hell's House (November 2013)
Kerouac’s Weakness and Strength (January 2011)
Kurt Seligmann's Moderate Surrealism (November 2016)
Kurt Seligmann and the Poets (October 2017)
Kurt Seligmann's Riddlesome Symbols (March 2017)
The Last Poets (March 2016)
The Legacy of the Beats (March 2014)
The Lyricism of the Ugly: Celine's Mort à Crédit (December 2014)
The Man with the Golden Arm and a Friend with Six Seeds (January 2014)
On Marinetti's Avant-Garde Fascism (September 2017)
Norris's Visionary (March 2018)
Onitsha Market Literature (February 2015)
Pig and Possum Teach Poetry (May 2014)
A Poem by Theodore Roethke (September 2011)
Poetry 1968 (December 2018)
The Power of Picasso's Sculpture (November 2015)
Remarks on the Grassroots Poetry Scene (July 2017)
Saki's Novels (April 2015)
Sartre's "Black Orpheus (February 2017)
Some Poetry Reviews (December 2012)
Sound Poetry and Edith Sitwell's Facade (July 2013)
Tristan Tzara, Poet of Manifestos (February 2018)
Two Graffiti (May 2011)
A Very Funny Fellow [Lev] (May 2012)
Wharton's Undine (June 2018)

C. Asian texts
Friendship and Romance in Ming Stories (February 2014)
Han Shan (December 2010)
The Heart of Hinduism (September 2018)
Journey to the North (December 2013)
Liezi (October 2012)
Lu Xun (October 2010)
Monkey Rides Again (January 2013)
Notes on Liu Xie (August 2011)
Shakuntala (August 2018)
Tang Stories (April 2016)
Theme and Tone In Kokoro (September 2016)
A Tibetan Novel (March 2017)
The Trials of Lady Ochikubo (April 2014)
The View from a Ten-Foot-Square Hut [Chomei] (February 2018)

D. songs
Blind Willie Johnson Preaches (May 2017)
Bukka White's Limpid Lyric Clarity (November 2017)
The Cutty Wren (August 2018)
"Down the Dirt Road Blues" [Charley Patton] (October 2011)
Fishing Blues [Henry Thomas] (October 2015)
Foggy Dew as Symbol (July 2012)
The Heart of the Blues [Robert Johnson] (January 2018)
The Imagery of Hokum Blues Songs (July 2015)
"Lady Maisry" (November 2013)
"Moon Goin' Down" [Charley Patton] (May 2013)
The Mule in Blues Imagery (August 2017)
"Nottamun Town" (April 2018)
The Paraklausithyron Blues (May 2016)
"Preachin' the Blues" [Son House] (November 2018)
"The Red Rooster" [Willie Dixon] (March 2014)
Robert Johnson and the Devil (September 2012)
Skip James' Blues Imagery (May 2015)
“Spoonful” and the Accretion of Meaning (December 2012)
"The Three Ravens" (August 2013)
Trinidadian Smut (April 2016)
Truckin' (November 2014)
“Walkin’ Blues” [Son House] (December 2011)

E. Notes on Recent Reading
Notes on Recent Reading [Melville, Greene, and Whalen] (September 2011)
Notes on Recent Reading 2 [Crane, The Crowning of Louis, Thornlyre] (October 2011)
Notes on Recent Reading 3 [Kipling, San Francisco Mime Troupe, Lynn’s Tao-te-ching] (November 2011)
Notes on Recent Reading 4 [Sarah Scott, de La Fayette, Wharton] (January 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 5 [The Deeds of God in Rddhipur, Burney, Cooper] (January 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 6 [Jewett, Addison, Crabbe] (February 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 7 [Nabokov, Austen, Grettis Saga] (April 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 8 [Bakhtin, Lewis, Brown] (May 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 9 [Plutarch, Tacitus, Williams](June 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 10 [Voltaire, France, Dryden](July 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 11 [Wright, Kerouac & Burroughs, Gilbert] (August 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 12 [Huxley, Norris, Dōgen](September 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 13 [Mirabai, Wood, Trocchi] (November 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 14 [Algren, Hauptmann, Rolle] (January 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 15 [Hemingway, Orwell, Gaskell]{February 2013}
Notes on Recent Reading 16 [Howells, Ford, Mann] (April 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 17 [McCarthy, Chang, Snorri](July 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 18 [Radcliffe, Stendhal, Erasmus](October 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 19 [Powers, Zhang Ji, Vietnamese folk song] (February 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 20 [Rowe, Stevenson, Issa] (May 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 21 [Fussell, Mahfouz, Watts] (August 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 22 [Waugh, Belloc, Okakura] (October 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 23 [Naipaul, Dinesen, Spillane] (January 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 24 [Fielding; Izumo , Shōraku, and Senryū; Plath] (June 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 25 [Baskervill, Gissing, Capote] (July 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 26 [Tuchman, Premchand, Cocteau] (November 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 27 [Forster, Sackville-West, Capote] (January 2016)
Notes on Recent Reading 28 [Verne, Waley, Hurston] (March 2016)
Notes on Recent Reading 29 [Achebe, Jewett, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam] (October 2016)
Notes on Recent Reading 30 [Bradford, Scott, Marquand] (April 2017)
Notes on Recent Reading 31 [Marlowe, Trollope, p'Bitek] (August 2017)
Notes on Recent Reading 32 [Morrison, Cary, Kawabata] (October 2017)
Notes on Recent Reading 33 [Tourneur, Peacock, Greene] (December 2017)
Notes on Recent Reading 34 [Hawthorne, Huncke, Bentley] (January 2018)
Notes on Recent Reading 35 [Scott, Norris, Jacobs] (August 2018)
Notes on Recent Reading 36 [Norris, Rexroth and Laughlin, Sand] (November 2018)
Notes on Recent Reading 37 [Waley, Wharton, London] (January 2019)

F. Rereading the Classics
Rereading the Classics [Burton] (November 2011)
Rereading the Classics [Gogol] (August 2012)
Rereading the Classics [Goldsmith] (December 2016)
Rereading the Classics [Kleist] (February 2012)
Rereading the Classics [Montaigne] (December 2013)
Rereading the Classics [Rabelais] (December 2011)

G. Every Reader's Poets
Every Reader's Blake (May 2017)
Every Reader's Donne (April 2018)
Every Reader's Herrick (December 2015)
Every Reader's Hopkins (May 2016)
Every Reader's Milton (January 2017)
Every Reader's Pope (May 2015)
Every Reader's Shelley (November 2014)
Every Reader's Skelton (March 2016)
Every Reader's Wyatt (December 2014)
Every Reader's Yeats (January 2015)
Why Read Poetry? (May 2018)

6. Translation
Alkaios' Happy Hour (January 2017)
Becher's "Someone Stands Up" (October 2012)
Christian and Dedicatory Epigrams from the Greek Anthology (March 2010)
Emmy Hennings (February 2010)
Emmy Hennings Poems (More from Die Letzte Freude) (November 2010)
Erotic Old English Riddles (March 2018)
Four Poems from the German of Richard Huelsenbeck (January 2010)
Four Quatrains by Wang Wei (January 2013)
Hans Arp (April 2010)
The Homeric Hymn to Dionysos (February 2012)
Horace I.21 (July 2016)
Hugo Ball (July 2010)
Hymn to Aphrodite (August 2010)
Hymn to Heracles the Lion-Hearted (June 2012)
Hymn to the Night [Novalis](March 2012)
Hymn to the Night II [Novalis] (July 2012)
Hymn to Pan (May 2014)
Leonidas of Tarentum (May 2010)
A Mixed Bag of German Translations (August 2014)
Rimbaud's "The Lice-Pickers" (March 2014)
"Rot" by Johannes Becher (September 2018)
Seven Poems from Léon-Gontran Damas (February 2017)
Some Anonymous Middle High German Lyrics (August 2011)
Three Horatian Odes (November 2012)
Translations of William IX (September 2010)
Wordsworth Speaks German (July 2011)
Yet Two More Versions of Wang Wei (June 2011)

7. Poetry
African poems (August 2010)
Domestic Incidents from the Life of the Lama Swine Toil (June 2017)
How to Be a Poet (June 2010)
The Liturgies of the Lama Swine Toil (September 2012)
Mexican poems (September 2010)
Poems from New Mexico (July 2010)
Poems from Turkey (June 2010)
Produce poems (May 2010)
The Soap Opera of the Pair Who Forgot Themselves, but only Temporarily (August 2012)
Some Sonnets (April 2010)
Three Poems from Peru (August 2011)
Two Lyrics on Death from Central America (January 2012)

8. Politics
Black Lives Matter (August 2016)
Economic Democracy (July 2013)
The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Port Huron Statement (June 2012)
Hard Rain Still Fallin’ (September 2010)
How to Get Serious about Fighting Crime (January 2010)
Local Politics (May 2015)
In Memory of a Generation's People's Heroes (October 2015)
Nationalism (June 2018)
Occupy Wall Street (November 2011)
The Role of Higher Education (November 2010)
The Socialist Martin Luther King (February 2016)
The Triumph and Tragedy of Revolution (December 2016)
Two Exemplary Anecdotes from the Sixties Student Movement (September 2013)
Utopia (November 2015)
Voluntary Poverty (October 2011)
Why I am a Socialist (March 2010)

9. Memoirs
Baby Boomer Reads the Beats (April 2012)
A Brief Literary Life (September 2012)
Edouardo (July 2018)
A Garland of Greek Professors (December 2010)
A Glimpse of Robert Bly (August 2012)
Grandparents (December 2009)
High School (August 2014)
Hip Poets of Seventies San Francisco (January 2011)
How I Came to Work at Scott Foresman (July 2017)
How I Was Hired to Teach in Nigeria (May 2011)
IWW (April 2011)
March in Cicero (December 2009)
A Memorable Roomer (June 2014)
My Most Politically Active Year (February 2011)
Nova Academy (March 2011)
Pestering Allen [Ginsberg] (March 2012)
Poetry on the Loose (September 2011)
A Scholar's Debut (October 2012)
Sherman Paul (August 2016)
Suburbanite in the City (November 2010)
Tim West (March 2013)
VISTA Trains Me (June 2011)

10. Travel
Arrival in Nigeria (August 2015)
Acadiana [Lafayette, Louisiana] (May 2010)
An Armenian Family in Bordeaux (December 2014)
Carnival [Portugal] (May 2012)
Cookie Man [Morocco] (October 2011)
Creel (October 2010)
Dame Fortuna in Portugal (May 2012)
Dinner with Mrs. Pea [Thailand] (April 2013)
Election Day in Chichicastenango (January 2012)
An Evening in Urubamba (July 2011)
Festival in Ogwa [Nigeria](January 2011)
On the Ganges' Shore (August 2013)
The Guru of Guinness (July 2016)
Haarlem (July 2010)
Hitchhiking in Algeria (September 2010)
Hitchhiking in France (January 2014)
Hungarian Food (December 2010)
Introduction to Tourist Snapshots (June 2010)
Jemaa el Fna (December 2010)
Knee-deep in History [Vietnam, Cambodia] (February 2014)
Najibe’s Stories (September 2011)
Nigerian Names and Vehicle Slogans (March 2011)
A Palm Wine Shack [Nigeria] (December 2011)
Portraits from a Floating World: Anonymous (October 2016)
Portraits from a Floating World: Najibe and Sandro (February 2010)
Portraits from a Floating World: Gahlia and Jack (June 2010)
Portraits from a Floating World: Leslie Spector and Pa’ahssyzy (August 2010)
A Problem on the Border [Algeria] (June 2011)
A Reading in Kathmandu (November 2009)
Sacred Space as Sideshow [Prague] (February 2010)
St. Joseph’s Day at the Laguna Pueblo (April 2011)
A Stroll around Lake Bled (May 2013)
Strong Stuff [Marrakech] (October 2012)
Tetouan (November 2010)
The Theory of Souvenirs (April 2012)
Travel Pictures (January 2019)
A Trip to India (January 2016)
Two Parades [India and Peru] (August 2011)
The Valley of Beautiful Women [Eger, Hungary] (March 2010)
Vignettes of Sunny Nigeria (March 2011)
A Waterfall near Marrakech (February 2011)

Icelandic Antinomies in the Grettis Saga

Parenthetic references are to chapters in the Grettis saga. Bracketed numbers are footnotes.

Many critics have commented on the singular phenomenon of the Icelandic sagas, an exceedingly rich body of literature from a small and poor land on the margin of civilization. To one translator the Icelanders “were and had been, for a thousand years, the most literary nation on earth.” [1] Though the sagas share some characteristics with Beowulf, for example, and indeed in a broader sense with heroic narratives from many lands, they have as well unique characteristics. Though many modern readers find the sagas of the highest literary value, they are in a sense highly local in their concerns, recording the legendary history of the leading families of the land with many specific details and place names. The Icelanders’ values are, like everyone’s, shaped by the specific conditions of their lives, in particular by tensions and contradictions they must resolve. The fundamental antinomies of the culture generate the form and content of classic Icelandic literature.

Grettir, the leading figure of the thirteenth century saga named after him, is a hero of decidedly ambiguous character. [2] Like Gilgamesh before him, Grettir is, even within this heroic culture, too wild. His energy, valor, and ego overflow in such excess that he finds himself outlawed and then outlawed again. People respect him and even admire him, but all agree that he is hot-headed and thus presents a danger of useless violence at all times. He is overweening, arrogant, and rude at the best of times, his impulsive unpredictability always a threat. The best man to have at one’s side in a fight, he is an undesirable house guest. Though he subscribes to the values of his people and appeals through legal channels to plead his case, he is constantly on the lam or accepting hospitality from more solid citizens. Through much of the action of the story he is either abroad or isolated in the barren central portion of Iceland. Is Grettir a hero or an anti-hero? In his own nature he straddles the gap between a masculine ideal and a feared villain.

Though Grettir never marries, female figures do play a significant role in his life. In general in a heroic narrative like the Grettis Saga values are hypermasculinized, leaving women in the shadows and on the margins, vulnerable things requiring male guardianship, hardly mentioned. [3] Yet, in the precisely structured world of this saga, the female gets her due both as a positive and a negative archetype. Eros plays no role in either.

Grettis’ life is saved by Thorbjorn, “the mistress of Vatnsfjord,” after he had been disgracefully captured by a troop of farmers. (LII) She is described as “a person of great magnificence” and “tremendously wise,” and she makes a judicious decision in this case, later seconded by her husband. On the other hand, it is Thurid, a sorceress, who finally is able to do Grettir in when the strongest of warriors could not. (LXXVIII) He can wound her but he is defenseless against her spells.

This depiction of the sexes, consistent throughout, is what makes the adventitious conclusion with its echoes of Tristan so discordant. The seductive Sera’s sexual aggressiveness is as out of place as is its counterpart, her turn toward asceticism when she feels her life is nearing a close. Suddenly at the end an anachronistic antinomy appears, palpably foreign to the structures of the rest of the story.

In earlier times a person’s identity derived from family and ancestry to an extent scarcely imaginable today. The ancient Greeks and Hebrews took pride in tracing their descent from ancient heroes whom they believed to be historical; this interest lies behind passages that may strike the modern reader as tiresome such as the catalogue of the ships in the Iliad and the family trees of Abraham and Noah in the Torah. The Old Norse author can seem to a modern reader compulsive about providing details of ancestry; indeed, the early sagas are sometimes called “family sagas.” Hardly an individual is mentioned without providing data on his family for several generations with perhaps some information on his wife and cousins as well.

The sagas are, to begin with, far more based in the facts of relatively recent history than the Iliad and Odyssey, and the odd details of wars and kings, while rarely the center of the plot, both enable and lend significance to genealogical detail. Since the country was settled by a small band of Norse exiles and then was largely isolated until recent times (the country is today one of the most popular travel destinations) it was in fact possible to trace one’s lineage to the early settlers. The information in the sagas constituted an earlier form of the cell phone apps that Icelandic youth use to discern how closely they are related to those they might date. [4]

The interest in everyone’s ancestry since all in a sense are descended from heroes is reflected in a dialectic between the individual and the social. Since Iceland was established essentially to escape the rule of Harald as overlord, a potent individualistic ethos arose in which each landowner had very nearly absolute power over those in his domain. The sagas barely mention thralls and karls except for an occasional villain. Though each landowner was in law autonomous, to avoid wasteful bloodshed and constant conflict, a social order was established to mediate relations among the bondis. The All-Thing was a highly democratic and legalistic institution at a time when much rule was by fiat. (The Grettis saga makes it clear that the democracy was always imperfect. Such meetings were subject to force of numbers and influence at all times and the Thing did eventually approach more closely to the conventional feudal structure.)

Religion, which in theory might claim absolute judgements, is likewise presented in an ambivalent light. The characters are almost all nominally Christians, but they make no reference to Christ nor do they live according to Christian precepts. Had Grettis been written before the conversion to Christianity, it would have made little difference. Trolls and ghosts do occur, but they are equivalent to extraordinarily daunting human opponents, endowed with power but liable, too, to defeat when challenged by a great fighter. When Thorarine excludes Grettis from Baldi’s expedition, saying he is ill-fated, one might think of the pagan Wyrd [5], but the fact is he might as well have said Grettir is obnoxious and unstable.

Surely the monstrous afterlife of Glam as a troll is associated with his spurning Christianity (XXXII), yet the Christian priest who assists Grettir putting a ladder into the lair of the giant proves faithless and cowardly, deserving only obloquy in a heroic context. (LXVI) The text neither protests the prevailing religion nor allows it to influence his world-view, while conceding that potency may be seen in both the old and the new way.

The story includes the accession of Olaf Haraldsson (XXXVII) to the throne, but, rather than mentioning his policy of forced conversion (itself a self-contradictory testament of Christianity), the author praises him, saying “he took into favour all men who were skilled in any way and made them his followers.”

Analogous bipolar structures underlie the most significant rhetorical strategies of the saga.

The simple fact that they are prose, though interlarded with many short poems, is unusual. In the Elder Edda, as in most mythic texts, the form of poetry indicates that the action unfolds in a realm far removed from the ordinary. Prose is the conventional medium for folk stories, which may include plenty of magic, but which do not define the fundamental terms of existence as myth does. Not only tales of gods, but those of legendary and semi-historical heroes such as the Mahabharata, the Iliad, and the Cantico de mio Cid are generally related in poetry.

Poetry is included in Icelandic sagas such as Grettis, but it is set off by a prose background. The verses, in highly artificial language, typically occur when a character wishes to either signal dominance, such as by insulting an antagonist, or to boast after a victory. [7] The author marks such high points of ego expression by marking them linguistically as distinguished from the language of everyday life. The hero is different from others, not divine - indeed, his vulnerable humanity is what makes true heroism possible for both Njal and Achilles. The individual with powers beyond his fellows is glorified by the very language he uses. Thus the structural distinction between prose and verse serves a dramatically expressive role, heightening the heroic personality beyond that of his fellows while the prose narrative maintains the action in the historical past rather than a mythic realm.

For instance, when Grettir is quarreling with Bjorn (XXII) he improvises verses several times, ultimately brags and then challenges his antagonist with an insulting poem.

Time was when the bear was slain by my hand;
My cloak in tatters was torn.
A rascally knave was the cause of it all
But now he shall make me amends.

The Grettis Saga is also full of proverbs, making it a repository of normative community wisdom. Frequently such adages have a riddle-like or paradoxical aspect. For instance “Ale is another man.” (XIX) could be the solution to the question, “When is a man not himself?” Similarly, a surmise may be fact: “The guess of the wise is truth.” (XXXI); and solitude may include company: “ Oft in the woods is a listener nigh.” (LIX)

Like other old Germanic authors, the saga writer makes liberal use of litotes, a rhetorical figure that typically involves the contradiction of an assertion to express its opposite. The simplest form may be illustrated by Grettir’s prediction when he is convinced against his better judgement to swim to fetch fire: “no good will come to me.” (XXXVIII) The use of such expression, common in Old Norse and Old English compositions suggests the laconic resignation so characteristic of the Germanic world-view, with its harsh weather, perils of sailing and warfare, and the metaphysical prospect of Ragnarok.

Not all examples of litotes involve negations. Potentially lethal fighting is repeatedly described as “playing.” (e.g. Thorbjorn in LXXVI) Understatement may be used to great dramatic advantage such as when Atli Asmundsson, Grettir’s brother, demonstrates heroic nonchalance as he comments while dying “They use broad spear-blades these days.” (XLV)

By using figures that may be described as “allegorical” in the broadest possible definition (that is, meaning, saying something other than the explicit message), the author implies two radical propositions. Using language in an indirect, suggestive, associative manner highlights the gap between signified and signifier, thus questioning the ordinary acceptance of words as an adequate representation of reality. The reader may ultimately winder whether even the artful words of aesthetic language with its elaborate socially constructed interpretive codes can convey accurate meaning. In the phrasing of the sagas, such considerations run consistently, if just below the surface.

Tightly organized oppositions provide the plot’s motive energy: valor and arrogance, individual and family, law and anarchy, Christianity and paganism. Its rhetorical dynamism arises from analogous formal polarities: prose and poetry, what is said and what is meant.

The Grettis saga moves forward, like all narratives, through conflict and tension. In this story the action is generated by the dualities central to the Old Norse culture: the individual and society, male and female, paganism and Christianity, prose and poetry. Neither is wholly privileged and neither wholly denied. Valor carried too far is arrogance. It is a man’s world, but the skills are women must be recognized. Everyone may be Christian but the old ways retain power. Neither prose nor poetry suits every utterance.

As Saussure recognized, it is in expressions of difference that meaning arises. We think in dualities and dramatic action can arise only in conflict. Grettis represents one proposal, the working out of a series of oppositions resulting in one version of how to be human. If it does not entirely fit, if incongruities leak from every side of the polarities, this apparent weakness is in fact the inevitable result of imitating the experience of life. Sufficient erratic and unpredictable energies exist to propel the individual to the next hour, the reader to the next tale, and culture to formulations ever new.

1. Introduction by George Ainslie Hight, The Saga of Grettir the Strong, vii. This version, a 1914 Everyman volume translated by George Ainslie Hight, is the source of my quotations in this essay. Iceland today is often called the most literate nation on earth. Ben Myers in ”The Icelandic Sagas: Europe's most important book?” in the Guardian (Oct 3, 2008) notes that the average Icelander reads four books a year and that one in ten has written a book.

2. In Icelandic sometimes called Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar. Translations into English have been titled Grettla, Grettir's Saga, and The Saga of Grettir the Strong. William Morris and Eiríkr Magnússon published a translation called The Tale of Grettir the Strong.

3. See Simone Weil’s “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force” which brilliantly analyzes Homeric violence.

4. See the AP story for Apr 18, 2013 appearing in numerous newspapers.

5. Wyrd is the Old English goddess of fate. The Norse cognate is Urðr or Urd, personified as one of the Norns.

7. Note the common use in African American writing and culture generally of “signifying,” the artful use of language, often employed for boasting or insulting.

Travel Pictures

Were I not desirous of keeping this essay free of footnotes, I might well have included an overture paying tribute to that grand opening of Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques: “Travel and travelers are two things I loathe.” After a glance or two in the direction of Sontag’s “On Photography” I might have acknowledged such academic studies as John Urry’s The Tourist Gaze or Dean MacCannell’s The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class before concluding my review of literature with a quotation from Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines characterizing nomads as people with “a motive for travel that went well beyond the vanity of documentation.” Simply thinking for a moment about the topic, it seems, provides ample evidence for the deep ambivalence that lurks behind travel. Such contradictions seem to underlie most of our important concerns and that, I suppose, is why we have art.

Pictures have long been the most popular souvenir. Yet I myself have never photographed the places I have visited, though I am as fond as others of recalling past journeys. Perhaps I have wished to avoid looking like a tourist. After all, I learned as a child the classic satiric stereotype of the tourist with a camera hanging over his tropical shirt. Elders will recall the jokes about the ordeal of watching someone else’s vacation slides that were once common. Perhaps they may even have experienced such shows themselves.

I also recall, though, community programs on the theme of travel. People would actually assemble in in a school auditorium or a library back room to watch either slides or a film, semi-professional at best, of Austria or Greece or Italy with a live narration by the traveler himself. As late as the nineteen fifties travel abroad was sufficiently infrequent that there was a market for this vicarious version though insufficient money was involved to elicit first-rate showmen.

Now people are shoulder to shoulder in Angkor Wat and crowds gather in remote Icelandic fields hoping for an unseasonal Northern Lights and virtually all of those people are holding cell phone cameras. The traveler now returns with hundreds or thousands rather than a few dozen images. It is now a real question whether anyone ever looks at most travel photos a second or even a first time. Yet virtually everyone feels compelled to take them. Is it merely a more modern and less destructive form of bringing home trophy heads from a safari?

The prevalent genres of the travel picture seem to me the least rewarding. Surely the most common type is the traveler posed with a slightly silly grin of satisfaction in front of a monument. It is as though the traveler were intent on preserving evidence for some panel of skeptical judges that the visit to Machu Picchu or the Taj Mahal had actually taken place. Virtually the only somewhat satisfactory version of this travel picture genre I have seen is a series by a couple who took their three year old child around the world, posing him in front of each historic castle or church, resulting in a display of enough wit and cute oddity to have at least a momentary interest for someone outside the family. But for most travelers, if a picture of an Olmec head is desired, why should the traveler enter the frame?

There is some perverse egotism, never satisfied, lurking here. Not long ago the English queen, known for dignity and politesse, vented a complaint. Her loyal subjects, who all her life had pressed to approach her on public occasions, excited faces showing that they were experiencing the thrill of a lifetime, now invariably turn their backs to her in an effort to take cell phone pictures (the name selfie alone should be enough of a warning). She was quite right to call such behavior rude, but does it not also leave the picture-taker with an image less a portrait of Elizabeth Regina than of the photographer’s bad taste?

A good number of tourists do omit the traveler and capture an image of the attraction itself, be it cathedral, fortress, statue, or grazing camels. Yet professional pictures of virtually all attractions and works of art are so easily available that I cannot conceive why people make so many new and generally inferior ones. In spite of the fact, picture-taking is more common than careful examination in many museums today. Queues actually form to snap the Mona Lisa, though, if the picture-taker later actually wished to study the painting, surely an online image would be preferable, or in a book, anything but the traveler’s own snapshot.

I am carping, and, of course, everyone is entitled to select amusements to his or her own liking. Further, photography is a worthy art and being in an exotic environment makes taking pictures tempting indeed. In many streets of India a random shot in any direction would be of at least some interest to an American with curiosity.

So far as I am concerned, pictures of people and street scenes are the traveler’s best bet. Far from privileging wonders of the world, I suspect everyone would agree that dodgy neighborhoods offer more rather than less opportunities for good scenes, though the rule is far from prescriptive. (After all, the crowd at Ascot might be as good as the shanties of Rio.) One can capture something unique, a record of a moment more likely to reflect the nature of the locale than its historic homes or grand fountains, and the possibilities are omnipresent. The traveler on the lookout for a scene worth the capture is encouraged to keep eyes and ears open, mind discerning, and is this not the point of visiting unfamiliar places? Surely one’s mind is broadening more when buying street food or watching a funeral pass by than when the tour bus pulls up to Mt. Rushmore or the bus driver points out the Monumento a la Revolución in Mexico City.

Photographing people is also a safe bet, as almost all faces are complex and fascinating. Yet issues of respect and civility come into play. Having lived in the Haight-Ashbury at a time when busloads of visitors would sometimes step down and aim their cameras at me and my family, I know that it can seem an assault. Still, with or without permission, a face is virtually always worth a moment’s study.

Among the travel pictures I have enjoyed, none are, strictly speaking, souvenirs with a primary appeal based on aiding the traveler’s recall of a pleasant vacation.

I like several photos in our family albums of my wife’s grandparents traveling back and forth to Europe in the twenties and thirties. In one they are dressed in tuxedo and gown, in another in elaborate costumes for the ship’s masquerade ball, in a third, posing with pride next to a mountain of steamer trunks. They provide vivid detail of the sensibility of the time when few people crossed the Atlantic for pleasure, though I think the pictures would be as engaging for a viewer who had no connection at all with the subjects. These pictures have a solid journalistic appeal.

On the cover of my chapbook Tourist Snapshots is a picture taken by Patricia of Moroccan street vendors. It provides an adequate suggestion, I hope, of the tone of the poems within. Yet, here too, I may get as well have chosen it from stock images. In fact, this picture was selected largely because it seemed so simultaneously exotic and typical. Even for me it carries no more associations than for another, though I was present when it was taken. My affection for North Africa is founded on intangible memory.

One of my wife’s pictures we like well enough to hang on the dining room wall. Taken In Sarnath, the town on the outskirts of Varanasi where Buddha did his first teaching, it depicts the most modest of tea houses with two outdoor folding tables, a parked motor bike, and a solitary patron gazing into his cup. Above, a large and crudely painted sign identifies this establishment as the Thinkers’ Cafe. The primary appeal of the image is its contrast of the humble place with its ambitious name, a hot and dusty street where it is still possible for anyone with the price of a cup of tea to think thoughts as grand as a philosopher.

Yet I realize that it does bring me back to thoughts not only of the message Buddha brought the bikkhus, but also to that museum in which we seemed the only ones examining the marvelous millennia old statues, while other visitors, Buddhist pilgrims, went from one to another touching them to collect mana like bees gathering pollen. I thought, too of the tree beneath which the Buddha was said to have preached, with its images of the five bhikkus, painted as brightly as carousel animals, from which we gathered a few leaves to bring home, unbelieving in magic but believing it possible that people could still their souls.

So that photograph of the Thinker’s Cafe succeeds for me as a souvenir, as a physical object inspiring memory, in a way that a snapshot of my lovely wife standing in front of the stupa would not have done. A stock photo or a picture by a friend could also not have borne those associations. The picture is not art because its meaning is largely private and unavailable to others. The successful travel picture will combine an initial aesthetic appeal with a lingering subjective strain that diminishes sweetly until the picture is viewed once again, its meaning accessible to one alone, or, if that one is fortunate, perhaps for two.

Notes on Recent Reading 37 (Waley, Wharton, London)

Yuan Mei: Eighteenth Century Chinese Poet

Waley never fails me. Indeed, all English-speaking readers who love Asian literature must be thankful for his labors. Though he acquired his knowledge of Chinese and Japanese languages under Laurence Binyon at the British Museum, cataloguing visual art, he eschewed academic posts and consistently wrote for that virtually extinct creature, the generally educated reader. He never visited China or Japan, but lived in Bloomsbury in London where he associated with literary figures rather than Sinologists. A friend of Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey, among others, he was as well an early admirer of Ronald Firbank, for whose first collected works he and Osbert Sitwell wrote an introduction. Ezra Pound recommended his work for the Little Review. His literary value has held up; while his translations are not the most scholarly, they are often the best choice especially for non-specialists.

Yuan Mei was a poet, artist, and food writer -- a translation of his gastronomic classic Suiyuan Shidan is forthcoming this year as Recipes from the Garden of Contentment. He wrote as well a theoretical work on poetry, the Suiyuan shihua. A brilliant student at a young age, he even left a guide to scoring well on the imperial exams on the Confucian classics. He worked in several government posts of which Waley provides sufficient details that we do not wonder why he abandoned the civil service at the age of thirty-two to devote himself to art.

Why do I feel such kinship with certain Chinese poets? Surely their participation in academic examinations on the classics is a part of what we share. Add to that the implied pathetic fallacy so widespread in traditional Chinese verse and part of today’s poetry in English since Waley’s first translations and the advent of the Imagists. Finally, there is a profound sympathy in world-view. Yuan Mei paid respects to Ch’an Buddhism while maintaining a position of unashamed hedonism, aesthetic and otherwise, as sufficient for everyday conduct. It is what might a few hundred years ago have been called a kind of natural religion. Simple though it be, such a position has been the refuge of more than one fine soul.

Waley’s book is unfailingly entertaining and readable. It is astonishing what details about the poet’s life survive in documents and how smoothly and novelistically Waley uses them to frame the many lyrics included in this volume.

In Morocco (Wharton)

Edith Wharton’s 1920 book describing a month touring Morocco, much of it devoted to Fes and Marrakech, is as engaging as one might expect. Wharton had lived in France for most of the previous decade and toured Morocco as a guest of the French Governor-General Lyautey (her fulsome praise for him cloys). As a dignitary she drove about in a French military vehicle and visited the residences of both French and local potentates where she sometimes participated in dinners served by slaves. She saw a good deal that an ordinary tourist would have missed, including the Saadian tombs and harems (the women she finds boring and a bit pathetic).

Apart from the well-sketched vignettes of Moroccan life of the time, the book would make a case study in the apologetics of imperialism, as Wharton hasn’t a doubt that France arrived at the invitation of the North Africans and in fact saved them from themselves.

Though this conviction would find fewer partisans today, many of her comments would be echoed by later visitors including myself. Her sense of having stepped far back in time is familiar even to today’s escorted tour customers, and her exposition of the country’s contradictions is illuminating, even when only half-informed. The phantasmagoria of Morocco is, of course, an illusion born of unfamiliarity, but it is no less intoxicating for that reason.

People of the Abyss (London)

Jack London’s story of his descent into the city of London’s East End, masquerading with rough clothes to impersonate what he had in fact been only a few years before, an itinerant laborer, remains powerful today, over a hundred years later. London sleeps in sordid quarters when not in workhouses, eats in the filthiest coffee houses, and fraternizes with the urban proletariat at a time when many in the greatest empire of modern times were literally starving. Apart from his own observations and the tales told him by many a hard-working tradesman fallen on hard times, London responsibly provides much statistical documentation of the plight of the poor, though this is perhaps less useful to today’s reader. His transcriptions of dialect seem authentic and his righteous indignation is exemplary.

The concrete particulars are necessary for a contemporary reader to realize how recently the great majority of the working class, not the lumpen or underclass, was in desperate straits in even the most developed capitalist economies. This book takes its place between Engels’ 1845 The Condition of the Working Class in England, London’s own The Road about tramping in the USA) and Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier. London himself said, “No other book of mine took so much of my young heart and tears as that study of the economic degradation of the poor."

London’s militance is inscribed in the text but not without a certain ambivalence as well. His distaste for the poor and for their wretched conditions is evident, but an even deeper contradiction, expressed in The Iron Heel as well, is his own Nietzschean preference for the strong and his almost eugenic conviction that the urban poor had in fact declined through devolution into something only just barely human.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Archives of the First Majority Gallery

America’s susceptibility to celebrity extends even to the arts. We laud the famous to the skies while neglecting those who have never gained the spotlight. We gladly pay premium prices for concert seats to hear a performer we know by reputation and ignore first-rate regional talents. We turn in a literary journal to the names we recognize and never get around to the rest. In order to succeed in the arts one must be as clever about publicity as about one’s art. In this way most artists work in darkness and leave no trace. The merit of an aesthetic work does not entail its longevity.

All the more do those who embrace counter-cultural ideals and eschew conventional markers of achievement prepare their own obscurity. Ted Joans was always just too hip for the mantle of fame while Allen Ginsberg found it fit him well. Patti Smith doggedly pursued every opportunity for advancement, so we can say her name today, while dozens of other punk poets are forgotten.

During the 1970s my wife Patricia Seaton, sometimes called “Ia,” was an exhibiting member of the First Majority Gallery in Berkeley, a pioneering all-female gallery in Berkeley. In a few decades the First Majority, has all but vanished from memory. Virtually nothing of its history is recorded online beyond its place in a few artists’ résumés and scans of old journals listing shows. Surely such grass-roots artistic formations have their own story to tell of the cultural history of our time. I record below some haphazardly surviving records concerning the group which were kept in increasingly battered cardboard boxes through all the artist’s travels and subsequent ventures. Having witnessed so very much of lesser importance preserved apparently forever in digital form, I list these documents here to record available details of one small and twisting tendril winding through the history of the age.

Reading the guest book comments for Patricia’s show, I am struck by the number of visitors who thought the work pointed important new directions. They felt the presence of something meaningful, beautiful, and novel in the arts. Decades later their enthusiasm cannot be recaptured, but it is possible to preserve a few fragmented traces of what once excited it.

Multiple copies exist of some documents.

call for submissions for two group shows during the summer of 1975 signed Ginger, Janet, Judith, Rosalie, and Sheila.

call for submissions for a group show inviting work “whether or not you consider yourself to be an artist,” on the theme of the Great Mother scheduled for April 24, signed “Rosalie, Sheila, Ia, Ginger, and Evelyn.”

call for submissions for a show on the theme “Illumination: words, pictures, & light” opening June 24, 1975.

letter dated June 18, 1975 signed Patricia Seaton indicating a wish to join the collective.

note accepting Seaton’s work for group show July 12, 1975.

“An Interior Landscape” Nov. 3-Dec. 7 (1975) poster with drawing by Ia and, following the title, the words “women’s environment . . .mental contours . . .collective art work.

“Spirits Clothed in Flesh” Jan. 27-Feb. 8 (1976) with drawing by Ia from a painted plate and, following the title, the words “paintings, drawings, ceramics, phantoms demonic & delicious."

“A Women’s Art Show” Oct. 1-Oct.31 (1975) with drawing perhaps by Janet Cannon-Unione including Virginia Atkin-Murray, Janet Cannon-Unione, Evelyn Hinde, Patricia Seaton, Sheila Seguin, Judith Sutliff, and Judy Todd.

Catalogue for “Spirits Clothed in Flesh” including three drawings by Ia.

press release for a slide lecture on “Patriarchal Mutilation of the Great Mother” by Lili Artel on September 18 and 25, 1975.

press release for “Spirits Clothed in Flesh” Jan. 27-Feb. 28 with remarks attributed to Euterpe of Chicago.

Women’s Art Center Newsletter, Winter 1976, with notice of Ia Seaton show, labeled gallery copy.

“The First Majority: Conversation with Sheila Seguin and Ginger Atkin,” four-page document citing a founding statement from February 1974 and list of the current collective members: Ginger Atkin, Rosalie Cassell, Evelyn Hinde, Patricia Seaton, Sheila Seguin, and Judy Todd. The document discusses the gallery and its vision, past shows, the current “Internal Landscape.”

announcement of an April 1 showing of tapes from “Just Us” and from International Women’s Video letters and of a program “Meet the First Majority” on April 25. Both are noted as “women only” events.

poster for the April 25 “Meet the First Majority” program, including “women only.”

poster for first show opening Feb. 15 with a group show including Virginia Atkin-Murray, Janet Cannon-Unione, Rosalie Cassell, Ellyn Rabinowitz, Diane Rusnak, Sheila Seguin, and Judith Sutliff.

poster for “Hindsight,” sculpture and environment by Evelyn Hinde with a drawing (by Hinde?) September 14-October 18 (1975?).

poster for “Bay Area Women: part 2” August 10-September 4, 1975 with unsigned drawing.

poster for “Ghost Images,” paintings, prints, and photos by Judith Sutliff with photo by Sutliff June 15-July 10.

poster for show featuring “The Drawings, Paintings, and Poems of Janet Cannon-Unione and Virginia Atkin-Murray with unsigned drawing.

poster for “Camilla Hall: her paintings, drawings, poetry” March 16-April 15 with drawing by Hall.
poster for Paintings and Sculpture by Sheila Seguin May 17-June 12.

poster for “Witch’s Retort” art by Rosalie Cassell and Judy Todd March 6-April 3, 1976 with unsigned drawing.

poster for the “Great Mother” show including Lina Allertons, Diane Rusnak, Pat Henshaw, Karen Berkan, Lougran O’Connor, Benita Mirabelli, Elizabeth Ennis, Maxene Galkin, January Nice, Leslie Markham, Nan Parry, Sara Sunstein, and Rossi Stewart, April 24-March 29, 1976.

poster for “Bay Area Women” July 12-August 7 with unsigned drawing.

poster for “Womanrise” Amazon art by Virginia Atkin, Dec. 23-Jan. 27 with drawing by Atkin.

poster for video evenings Feb. 9, March 11, and March 25 featuring the Just US Video Collective, the Iris Video Collective and CCAC Women’s Video, the latter two to admit women only.

poster for open poetry readings (women only) in the gallery starting April 9.

poster for lectures Sep. 2 by Evelyn Hinde on Käthe Kollowitz [sic], Sep. 18 Lili Artel in the Great Mother, and Sep. 25 Lili Artel on “Fragmentation of the Great Mother in Patriarchy.”

text of proposal to Berkeley City Government for grant, dated December 1975.

report to Berkeley Civic Arts Commission detailing programs in the First majority Gallery space, undated.

photocopy of new story “First Majority: more than just a gallery” September 1975.

press release following the gallery’s first show opening February 15, 1975, discussing the history of the project, two pages.

“The First Majority: Evolution of a Women’s Gallery in the East Bay” discussing the first show, February 15, 1975, copied from an unknown journal.

copy of article by Brenda Kahn from The Daily Californian February 25, 1975 “New Gall;eryto Shpwcase Women Artists Only.”

Calendar of First majority events for January through March showing numerous programs undocumented elsewhere.

unspecified: letter from Chico State professor asking for slides of “Octopus Woman” for a course on Women and the Arts, newspaper announcements of shows, visitor book with comments for “Spirits Clothed in Flesh,” six pages from what seems to be a gallery sitter’s book, list of Bay Area media outlets, poster for “Persona, a women’s art show in the Berkeley Library.

Poetry 1968

I delivered this talk to a general audience at a 1993 conference observing the passing of twenty-five years since that annus mirabilis (or was it an annus horribilis?) 1968. The occasion encouraged a sociological swerve in the discussion. Fifty years have now passed. I could not resist revisions.

Just as language according to Saussure is a system of difference, literary history proceeds by contradiction and dialectic. Tradition and innovation are complements rather than opposites. A static code would be robotized and empty of information whereas one wholly free of convention would be unintelligible. As anyone who has witnessed an English department meeting is aware, literary people are fond of tossing words about endlessly, but this does not mean their disputes are meaningless. Just like the ancient Greek contention between the water-drinking poets and their wine-drinking colleagues or the eighteenth century battle of the books, the 1968 “culture clash” in poetry represented real differences in values, literary practice, and culture generally.

In fact ten years before 1968 the partisan lines were already well-defined. The fact is notorious that the two most prominent anthologies of new poetry in English – the 1957 New Poets of England and America edited by Donald Hall, Robert Pack, and Louis Simpson and Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry 1945-1960 – did not contain a single poet in common. So there was fierce controversy on strictly poetic turf, and the war of the anthologies defines the principal factions usefully and far more precisely than the labels formalist and anti-academic. Still, other oppositions occurred simultaneously. Within the boundaries of Allen’s collection, one might, for instance, imagine the scrimmage of the projectivists against practitioners of the deep image or the bicoastal competition between the boys from Artnews against the team from City Lights.

On this occasion, though, I prefer to emphasize the intersections of the sociological with the literary and to highlight some works from that period that exemplify significant changes in the location of poetry in the fabric of American culture.

Today as in the sixties most Americans consume poetry in the form of advertising copy. The clever writers who sell beer and detergents use every trick in the Renaissance manuals of rhetoric, and they doi gain their audience. The verbal magic of their technical skills, alas, is directed only at charming money from the consumer to the corporation, not a theme likely to generate soul-stirring and enduring texts. A few subgenres still persist with vigor: bumper stickers, internet memes, greeting cards, and the more extravagant varieties of slang. But poetry proper, the longtime honorific queen of the arts, is also the neglected step-daughter – without readership, without a context beyond the universities which continue to shelter a few queer cranks.

In 1968 poetry was reaching new audiences and experiencing a miniature surge in popularity which, though never fully realized in new masterpieces, still carries momentum today in a thousand open readings in bars and coffee houses. This efflorescence did not emerge, though, from the heart of American poetic tradition alone, but was stimulated by social, political, and economic conditions and movements far outside the realm of the aesthetic.

Several of the new popular artists and audiences were directly spawned by the political trends of the day. Protest rallies often included poets and musicians on the same stage with orators. In what was really a fainter echo of the proletarian art of the thirties, the sixties brought new art arose to make concrete the radical sentiments of the day: the new muralist movement ornamented some of the bleakest walls of American cities, Newsreel set out to chronicle the revolution on film, R. Diggs of Rip Off Press and Aaron Fagen of Rising Up Angry drew cartoons that were fierce as well as funny. There were even countries where the politicians were poets, a peculiar thought for Americans: Mao and Ho, Leopold Senghor of Senegal and Agostinho Neto in Angola. Protest poetry had been building, cultivated by Robert Bly who founded American Writers against the Vietnam War in 1966 and the following year held the first anti-war poetry reading and Old Leftist Walter Lowenfels whose anthology Where is Vietnam? appeared in 1967. Books like Ed Dorn and Gordon Brotherston’s Our Word: Guerilla Poems from Latin America not only were published, but enjoyed a certain popularity. Diane di Prima published the first of her self-dramatizing Revolutionary Letters. For a time, as a generation earlier, it seemed that writers and artists were united in opposition to an oppressive government.

Black literary consciousness had already the tradition of the Harlem Renaissance and the thirties engagement with socialism. During the Depression Langston Hughes performed to the sound of jazz as well as composing in jazz-influenced verbal rhythms, and in the fifities black poets were welcomed in the counter-culture. Writers like Ted Joans, Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka), and Bob Kaufman read accompanied by small ensembles in bars, galleries, and coffee houses. On May 19 of 1968 (Malcolm X's birthday) Felipe Luciano, Gylan Kain and David Nelson formed The Last Poets in Marcus Garvey Park in East Harlem. That year Etheridge Knight went directly from prison to an appointment at the University of Pittsburgh on the strength of his Poems from Prison, and LeRoi Jones and Larry Neal came out with Black Fire, an anthology of African-American poetry which acknowledges, according to Neal’s “Afterword,” “History weighs down on all this literature,” and which thus seeks to represent , as Jones (Baraka) said in the “Foreward” “the striving of a nation coming back into focus.”

The hip subculture, conceived at the time by some as the revolutionary youth movement, contributed to the radical critique of America. Though the Beat Generation was in fact a coterie of writers (Ginsberg liked to says it was simply himself and a few friends), by the late sixties it looked almost like a mass movement. The 1967 Human Be-in in San Francisco featured Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and Snyder as well as Lenore Kandel who insisted on the vatic as well as the political role of poetry, saying “Poetry is never compromise. It is the manifestation of a vision, an illumination, an experience.” (Allen and Tallman 450) The Diggers publishing arm, the Communications Company, had already ceased printing by 1968, but their example spawned countless others. Paul Carroll, the Chicago poet who had come to some prominence when the University of Chicago refused to publish a number of the Chicago Review he had edited which featured William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac and he reacted by printing it himself as the first issue of Big Table, saw that his time had come and he published an anthology titled The Young American Poets which featured writers who had emerged after Allen’s anthology.

Oral performance of poetry had, of course, been widespread throughout history, but with differing forms in different eras. Earlier generations of Americans had made celebrities of poets like James Whitcomb Riley, Amy Lowell, and Vachel Lindsay based on their live shows, but for the second half of the twentieth century the spoken word model (apart from university readings) was the Beat coffee house scene. By 1968 readings were proliferating across the country in a trend that continues to the extent that poetry may well be the most widely practiced art today.

Considerably more influential than even the burgeoning hip movement was the evolution of popular music. In a general way the often sappy lyrics of fifties rock and roll, many of them written by Tin Pan Alley professionals, were replaced by more original, subtle, and inventive lyrics. Led in sales by Bob Dylan and the Beatles, much popular music came to be more artisanal than corporate, with every garage band playing originals, and millions of people who never would have read a poem consumed these oral texts with devotion and understanding. Instead of the Leiber and Stoller songs expressing teen-age frustrations with school (“Charley Brown”) and Parents (“Yackety-yak”), bands began to express youth culture with a more radical disaffection. The leading edge of this trend was perhaps embodied by John Sinclair and the MC5 and their White Panther Party (later the Rainbow people’s Party) who literally proposed a program of “rock and roll, dope, and fucking in the streets.” Even among the most popular artists, 1968 was the year of the release of the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” with its declarations “The time is right for a palace revolution” and “I’ll kill the king.” By contrast in 1968 the Beatles recorded “Revolution” which satirically maintained “if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/ You ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow.” (A few years later, in 1971 John Lennon was moved to announce a different reaction: “I really thought that love would save us all. But now I’m wearing a Chairman Mao badge, that’s where it’s at.” (Lennon Remembers) Meanwhile Mick Jagger was boasting that his father had been a working class Communist.

The categories between the social, the political, and the artistic blur in Amiri Baraka’s comment on jazz: “The social consciousness displayed in that music . . . is more radical than sit-ins. We get to Feel-Ins, Know-Ins, Be-Ins.” (Black Music) In spite of the dated locutions, this might serve as a decent formulation of the Romantic definition of art.

At the same time as poetry was influenced by the political and by popular art, experimental work continued in more purely artistic circles. The attacks on poetry written to order for New critical analysis continued on a variety of fronts: the confessional writers, the hip attempt to tap into pure consciousness, Bly’s “leaping poetry,” the search for the elusive breath unit, the exploration of oral literature by Snyder, Rothenburg, and others, to mention only a few.

In terms of form itself the sixties represent a transition period during which the profoundly radical gestures which had originated earlier in the century when another war had estranged the artists and Dada had emerged were being integrated into established and academic journals, giving birth to a curiously sleek and prosperous avant-gardism. Before long, the very strategies which had been used to épater les bourgeoisie were receiving grants from major foundations founded by nineteenth century robber barons and even by the federal government without alarming an body except eventually in the nineties Jesse Helms and a few fundamentalists who had never before given a thought to art.

Cage, MacLow, and Kaprow cultivated randomness and their attitudes were reflected in verse by writers like Ted Berrigan, Anselm Hollo, an d Lew Welch. The attempts to explode the text advanced, breaking first syntax (like Clark Coolidge) and proceeding to wholly non-verbal documents by people like Richard Kostelanetz very like to old-style Lautgedichte. Though such work was as much in a twentieth century tradition as it was experimental, it continued to attract practitioners in spite of its loss of the ability to surprise and shock.

The concept of a “culture clash” moved from symbolic to physical described by Charles Simic in “On the Great Poets Brawl of 1968.” He recalls hostility to the old guard faction headed by longtime editor Henry Rago whom “lots of poets loathed” was sufficiently heated that fistfights erupted on the floor of the Stony Brook World Poetry Conference. Yet that same year Poetry published aging avant-gardists like Pablo Neruda, Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan, political radicals like Muriel Rukeyser, and hip authors like Gary Snyder, as well as experimentalists of various schools such as Gerard Malanga, Ted Berrigan, and Larry Eigner.

The proliferation of community poetry readings and the relative rise in popularity of readings by well-known authors is a lasting if limited effect of the tendency that, while it was hardly new, grew considerably in the late sixties. As M.F.A. programs have sprouted on all sides, the general poetic literacy has fallen precipitately. The poetic energy that for a time in the sixties bled into popular culture in a range of fresh and exciting directions, has, it seems to me, produced little promise of new work in our own time. Revolutionary political lyrics in rare survivals seem as robotized as the forgotten proletarian poetry of the thirties, though ethnic identity, gay, and feminist themes are prominent in prize-winning manuscripts. A solid advance is evident in the emergence of ranks of significant black writers, but political protest seems most vigorous in rap. The counter-culture, arguably already spent by 1968 – the Haight had observed “the death of hippie” toward the end of 1967 – is to most a somewhat silly memory rather than a renaissance. Its innovative forms have been coopted and digested by the marketplace. The sometimes witty, elegant, and outrageous head comics, it seems, served only to pave the way for Beavis and Butthead, the montage methods of the wildest underground movies appear in advertisements for underwear, and popular music has long returned to being a commodity. For my money, the present question is not in what direction the avant-garde will turn, but whether an avant-garde is possible at all in the twenty-first century.