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
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Friday, September 1, 2017

Index

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)
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)
Worn Tools (June 2013)


2. Literary theory
Afloat on the Ocean of Words (April 2016)
Allusion (March 2015)
Art and the Marketplace (April 2010)
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)
Riddles and Poetry (March 2015)
The Signifying Monkey Talks Literature (April 2010)
Some Notes Toward a Theory of the Avant-Garde (October 2013)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
Baudelaire's "Painter of Modern Life" (July 2017)
Big Bill Otter's Sprees and Frolics (November 2013)
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)
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)
Are Uncle Tom's Children Bound by History? (April 2014)
Banjo (March 2017)
A Brief History of Negritude (February 2017)
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)
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'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)
Onitsha Market Literature (February 2015)
Pig and Possum Teach Poetry (May 2014)
A Poem by Theodore Roethke (September 2011)
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)
Two Graffiti (May 2011)
A Very Funny Fellow [Lev] (May 2012)

C. Asian texts
Friendship and Romance in Ming Stories (February 2014)
Han Shan (December 2010)
Journey to the North (December 2013)
Liezi (October 2012)
Lu Xun (October 2010)
Monkey Rides Again (January 2013)
Notes on Liu Xie (August 2011)
Tang Stories (April 2016)
Theme and Tone In Kokoro (September 2016)
A Tibetan Novel (March 2017)
The Trials of Lady Ochikubo (April 2014)

D. songs
Blind Willie Johnson Preaches (May 2017)
"Down the Dirt Road Blues" [Charley Patton] (October 2011)
Fishing Blues [Henry Thomas] (October 2015)
Foggy Dew as Symbol (July 2012)
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)
The Paraklausithyron Blues (May 2016)
"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)

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 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)


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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)

On Marinetti’s Avant-Garde Fascism



Since the Romantic era innovative artistic programs have often been associated with the left wing of politics. From the radicalism of Shelley and Blake, Whitman and Zola, through the anarchists and communists of Dada and Surrealism up to the present day, most artists and a forteriori those who consider themselves avant-garde have challenged the status quo from a progressive perspective. [1] (Indeed, in the news this morning is the announcement that President Trump will not attend the Kennedy Center arts award ceremony due to his fear of hostility from those being honored.) Yet some artists have been equally fierce militants from the right. Going beyond the casual sexism, anti-Semitism, and class bias so common in writers of a broad range of viewpoints, Marinetti was a founder of Italian fascism, Céline a virulent Nazi sympathizer, Pound a propagandist for Mussolini, and Mishima an imperialist militarist. At the same time each of these might also be called, to one extent or another, a revolutionary in art. [2]

It is not difficult to assume a natural link between progressive views and powerful art. Art, after all, is based on imaginatively experiencing another’s consciousness and, in a sense, “trying out” other people’s experiences and emotions. Art, like science, requires a receptive and open mind. The themes of art often encourage a broad-based sympathetic understanding that goes well beyond tolerance. Because fascist artists and artistic movements are thus anomalous, their origins seem well worth investigating, especially in the present historical moment. The most significant explicitly fascist artist of the twentieth century is perhaps Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, whose loyalty to Mussolini was no less steady than his influence in poetry and visual art. [3]

Marinetti’s dedication to the Italian fascist movement has problematized readers’ consumption of his work and that of his movement. Though he was obliged to separate his political and artistic programs once the fascists were in power and decided they preferred the same sort of kitschy “wholesome” art their Nazi associates liked, the poet was in fact, a founder of Italian fascism. He, with Mussolini and the syndicalist Alceste De Ambris [4], wrote the party’s founding document, the 1919 “Manifesto dei fasci italiani di combattimento” (“Manifesto of the Italian Fasci of Combat”).

Marinetti’s “Futurist Manifesto” (1909) makes little direct reference to politics. Much of it is little different from the many other manifestoes of modernism. The reader finds the usual call to do away with the old and introduce the new. [5] There is, however, a curious and significantly different enthusiasm as well that one might label a fascist sensibility. When Marinetti says, “I stretched out on my car like a corpse on its bier” [6] the reader is put on warning.

At first the language is not so transgressive. Marinetti celebrates “the love of danger,” and insists “except in struggle, there is no more beauty. No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece. Poetry must be conceived as a violent attack on unknown forces, to reduce and prostrate them before man.” The emphasis on action is underlined by violent associations. “Up to now literature has exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy, and sleep. We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap.”

This is all very well, but the praise of death recurs in the manifesto with a persistence unparalleled in any statement of Dada or Surrealism. After an opening when the speaker and his associates, a fevered group of young intellectuals not unlike the coterie evoked by Howl, one finds that rather than “burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” Marinetti and his friends “like young lions . . . ran after Death.” Ignoring the ambiguity of whether the young lions are thought to run after their own death or that of their prey, the reader can only wonder at this extraordinary reversal of conventional values.

The proto-fascist Futurist explicates, but his comments do not seem to help. “There was nothing to make us wish for death, unless the wish to be free at last from the weight of our courage!” He imagines a fight to the death with mysterious antagonists. “They’ll storm around us, panting with scorn and anguish, and all of them, exasperated by our proud daring, will hurtle to kill us, driven by a hatred the more implacable the more their hearts will be drunk with love and admiration for us. ”An explicitly erotic aura seems somehow to accumulate about mortality. [t] “Death, domesticated, met me at every turn, gracefully holding out a paw, or once in a while hunkering down, making velvety caressing eyes at me from every puddle.”

Yet he does describe this Todestrieb in social motives terms, culminating in a shocking declaration: “We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.”[7] In the end “art, in fact, can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice.”

Though poetry celebrating war is as old as poetry itself, this formulation is unprecedented. The aestheticization of violence is ancient, but it had in the past not been glorified to the exclusion of other elements. The nineteenth century anarchists such as Most, Bakunin, and Kropotkin cultivated a taste for the propaganda of the deed and probably the most direct influence from the social realm on Marinetti’s attitude is that of the left syndicalist Georges Sorel (who in fact admired Mussolini as well as Lenin). [8] Sorel had insisted in his 1908 “Reflections on Violence” that “proletarian violence, carried on as a pure and simple manifestation of the sentiment of class struggle, appears thus as a very fine and heroic thing.” [9]

Apart from racism, chauvinism, censorship, and militarism, fascism is generally associated with a radically contrarian values including the celebration of violence, even of death. One thinks of the slogan of the Legión Española “¡Viva el muerte!” Its members described themselves as novios de la muerte ("bridegrooms of death"). Similarly, the SS used a skull and bones as insignia. The division that administered the death camps was in fact named the Totenkopfverbände (Death’s Head units).

Similar imagery -- skulls as well as signs suggesting Satanism and fascism -- can be found among prison inmates, outlaw bikers, and heavy metal enthusiasts. For these subcultures it is surely the shock value, the ability of these symbols to disturb the general population, rather than any specific allegiance to Nazism or diabolism that underlies this usage. Hooligan skinheads may ape fascist gestures while hardly knowing what they mean. Examples of this posture, taken to the point of caricature, include Aleister Crowley and his epigone Anton LaVey. Parallel phenomena include the role of heroin in, first the jazz scene and later in the Beat movement and the music of the Velvet Underground, novels of Will Self, and, of all things, the “heroin chic” of nineties fashion photography. [10]

The most significant parallel in art to this predilection for death is the tradition rising from the confluence of the Romantic love-death in Werther with such rebellious quasi-Satanic anti-heros as Byron’s Manfred, Lautréamont’s Maldoror, and Baudelaire. Why, after all, are the flowers evil?

Perhaps someone knows what it can mean, after all, when Marinetti says that art “can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice.” The first has, of course, always been a component of human psyches and human art; the second was developed by Artaud into a coherent theory; the third I can understand only as an oblique way of saying that the imagination is stimulated by suffering. But how any of these notions could support Marinetti’s other theoretical writings [11] or the actual poems and paintings of Italian Futurism is to me a mystery. It would be simple to play psychologist with Marinetti’s peculiar ideas about women, but such speculation is irrelevant to his art.

Thus it is perhaps not merely uneasiness when confronting taboos that explains the difficulty contemporary readers have with the theory of Italian Futurism. If Marinetti’s ideas do not even fertilize the rich artistic practice associated with his movement, it may be simply because they are adventitious. Truly fascist art is recorded in Germany and in Italy and it resembles nothing so much as the productions of Stalinism and Maoism: reductive, conventional, sentimental, and shallow, with little to interest those other than true believers. [12]

Marinetti’s manifesto is better considered as a literary rather than a philosophical document. The compelling power of the circumstances into which he places his strident claims – the automobile crash in the original manifesto and the airplane ride in the manifesto on writing – establishes a memorable and effective dramatic context. His assertions are expressive of the mood, the sensibility of his reaction to the historic moment. Rather than statements of serious aesthetic theory, he is writing poems. His “Futurist Manifesto” broke new ground, establishing in fact a new genre of literature, and set the pattern for many to follow. He is most fruitfully read not for ideas but for his boisterous rhetoric.

His language remains not merely vigorous but suggestive and even eloquent. Toward the end of the “Futurist Manifesto,” after the speaker has overturned his car after facing the dialectical motorcyclists, he rises and cries out, “O maternal ditch, almost full of muddy water! Fair factory drain! I gulped down your nourishing sludge; and I remembered the blessed black breast of my Sudanese nurse… When I came up—torn, filthy, and stinking—from under the capsized car, I felt the white-hot iron of joy deliciously pass through my heart!” This montage of imagery is rich in connotation, engendering widening waves of semiotic association, but the images make sense only in the most oblique, self-contradictory fashion. The reader who seeks a logical, even a persuasive program will be disappointed.






1. It seems in fact scarcely debatable that the professariat as well as the intelligentsia in general, are distinctly liberal, while the uneducated, unfortunately, chose our current President Trump.

2. For fuller scholarly accounts of the relationship between fascism and the avant-garde see Mark Antliff’s Avant-Garde Fascism: The Mobilization of Myth, Art, and Culture in France, 1909–1939 and Andrew Hewitt’s Fascist Modernism: Aesthetics, Politics, and the Avant-garde.

3. Pound had perhaps even more profound influence, but his Social Credit theories had an indirect relation to fascism in spite of his attempt to serve fascist Italy.

4. Alceste De Ambris had been a major organizer of the agrarian strike of 1908. As a “national syndicalist” he supported Italy’s entry into WWI. He soon became disillusioned with the fascists, however, eventually entering into active opposition until his citizenship was withdrawn and he was driven into exile in 1926.

5. Laurent Tailhade is reputed to have stated, after Auguste Vaillant bombed the Chamber of Deputies in 1893: "Qu'importent les victimes, si le geste est beau?" ["What do the victims matter, so long as the gesture is beautiful"]. In 1929 André Breton's "Second Manifesto" stated that "L’acte surréaliste le plus simple consiste, revolvers aux poings, à descendre dans la rue et à tirer au hasard, tant qu’on peut, dans la foule" [The simplest Surrealist act consists of running down into the street, pistols in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd]." On a similar topic see my “The Inconsequential Bayonets of Art: Militant Rhetoric and the Avant-Garde” on this site.

6. Has anyone noted the anticipation of the opening of “Prufrock” with its “patient etherized on a table”?

7. Marinetti was explicitly anti-feminist and quite consciously misogynistic.

8. See Sorel’s March 1921 conversations with Jean Variot, published in Variot’s Propos de Georges Sorel, (1935) Paris, pp. 53-57, 66-86 passim.

9. Sorel also became, after supporting Dreyfus, a virulent anti-Semite.

10. In the eighties, when grunge was big, my wife knew a young lad who liked to play music shirtless and carefully applied makeup to his chest to create the illusion of an unhealthy sunken chest. This is not far distant from the nineteenth century view of tuberculosis as beautiful. Byron said “I should like, I think, to die of consumption.” (See Katherine Byrne's Tuberculosis and the Victorian Literary Imagination. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2011.) Poe said in “Philosophy of Composition” that “the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.”

11. His “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature,” for instance, has seemingly nothing to do with death or violence or fascism. Instead, apart from calling on Futurist poets to “hate the intelligence” [emphasis in original], it consists of such curious proposals as the abolition of the adjective and adverb and all punctuation. The “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting” likewise seems unconnected to Marinetti’s politics or his obsessions.

12. In his speech for the opening of the “Degenerate Art” exhibit on July 18 1937, Hitler could sound something like an avant-gardist: “I am going to make a clean sweep of phrases in the artistic life of Germany,” but he looks only backwards, endorsing “healthy,” easily understandable art.

This and That




I know the title is what one would expect from the local news reporter for a small town Midwestern newspaper listing church rummage sales and fiftieth anniversaries, but I am resolved to use it anyway. For me, though I suspect for no one else, it carries a bit of association with a book, a thrift store curiosity I remember fondly though I discarded it years ago titled This Way and That that consisted of examples for British students’ test preparation not only of translations from the Greek and Latin classics, but also versions of, for instance, Milton made into Latin (not too great a leap there) and Shakespeare in Attic Greek. What a wonderfully demanding, utterly superfluous skill! Does anyone now learn to translate into the languages of the Classics? Not four decades ago I witnessed an academic panel that presented and discussed research papers entirely in Latin. Could one still convene such a group?
My direct inspiration, though, is the Japanese zuihitsu genre the most well-known of which is the marvelous Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. Yoshida Kenko’s Essays in Idleness is a later example. My own reading and writing are so desultory that I believe the form may fit me well. Only when I’ve written a few dozen pages will I know. If so, this feature may recur.



Rereading Thomas Love Peacock I find myself as pleased with his name as his books. The “Peacock” is grand enough, but “Love” as a middle name makes it irresistible while “Thomas” keeps it plausible. Surely he was fated to attain Romantic celebrity whether he aimed to do so or not. I am put in mind of sitting in the Old English classroom of Prof. Rainbow whose very name seemed to spread a soft and charming light over the rasping consonants and willed fortitude of those old poems almost fifty years ago.



In my cupboard for spices and herbs is a small tin of asafoetida with a cobra rising to meet the cook. I sometimes add a grain or two to my Indian dishes. The brown balls of dry congealed gum are apparently a lifetime supply. Among its vernacular names are devil’s dung and Teufelsdreck. Though known for its disagreeable odor, this latex or oleoresin from the root of the Ferula (a cousin of the carrot) is said to lend the flavor of leeks to cooked food. I cannot say that my own taste can perceive this subtle flavor, but I add it anyway. It is too strong for some as it is one of the five vegetable foods avoided by some East Asian Buddhists along with several varieties of garlic and onion. Such foods were thought to excite desire in a way in compatible with enlightenment.



I sometimes think that Manhattanites are among the most provincial of Americans. When I taught at L.I.U. in Brooklyn, the English Department had thirteen professors, eleven of whom were native New Yorkers. Virtually all of them had also attended university in the city. Saul Steinberg’s celebrated New Yorker cover showed the nation foreshortened almost out of existence on the west side of the Hudson. This was not merely a joke. It used to be that people who lived in Manhattan rarely even ventured to Brooklyn, but that has changed.



I cannot accept the current use of the word “hipster,” today used to describe the affluent young who are busy gentrifying Brooklyn. Are these not the same people, though possibly with the camouflage of enhanced facial hair, who used to be called yuppies? In the fifties the hipster was on the edge – see Mailer’s “The White Negro” for evidence – whereas today’s crop care primarily, so far as I know, for elaborate espresso drinks.



We appreciate the marvelous beauty of nature, admiring an Insect’s anatomy, the veining of a leaf or the branching of a tree, an irregularly shaped rock, or the movements of a house cat. To what extent is such pleasure distinct from that derived from the contemplation of works of art? While it is true that art may seem set apart from nature due to its intentionality – absent from a sunset unless one considers some deity as the artist – perhaps in the reception of a work by Mozart, Delacroix, or Sir Philip Sidney, one is simply admiring the structure of that other consciousness, itself as “natural” as everything that exists must be.



Why are so many of the people at left-wing demonstrations today so old? In the sixties most activists were my age then, but today it seems still to be my cohort that is keeping alive the hope of progressive change. Age seems even more a selector at artistic events. From the rear of the hall it is often a sea of white hair at chamber music concerts and plays and poetry readings. Public television ever since Upstairs, Downstairs has run utterly commercial dramas lacking in artistic ambition while “non-commercial” radio does publicity for commercial rock and rollers and television programs. In this era are all art lovers old fogeys?



Near my home is a warning sign for a school zone with the familiar silhouettes of a boy and a shorter girl carrying books. Though the year is 2017, the boy is wearing knickerbockers. Now, I was born in 1946 and such pants were never part of my experience. They appear in thirties movies, so I imagine the cataclysm of the war may have altered this fashion as it did many others. I doubt that the sign I see on my daily biking is seventy-five years old. It seems odd that this iconic image enjoys such longevity. It reminds me of the ink-wells on the right corner of my elementary school desks, though dipping a pen into ink struck me even then as archaic. These were long shadows cast by the past like my father’s uniform hanging in our attic, and a few ragged comic books I somehow acquired from the years before I was born, featuring Joe Palooka and the Blackhawks battling Nazis, the most vicious of villains.

Irving's Soft Romanticism

My copy of Tales of the Alhambra is, as I note at the outset, an odd edition, published by Editorial Padre Suarez of Granada and unlikely to be available to anyone else. The page numbers in parentheses are thus likely to be of little use. In order to allow the reader to locate the passages I cite, I have therefore appended a list of the chapters from which each quotation is taken.


I have just been reading Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra out loud with my wife. Our copy is, fittingly, I think, not a scholarly Library of America volume, but an undated octavo souvenir edition printed in Granada at least eighty years ago which includes many engravings which look as though they were quite old when the book was printed. It fits neatly into a pocket, and its ideas slide as easily into the mind. The author prefers to sooth rather than to disturb his reader. Irving shares with Hawthorne and Cooper the early development of specifically American writing, but Irving’s tone is altogether different from either of his fellow-countrymen. Whereas Hawthorne brooded on colonial history with a consciousness haunted by self-doubt and intimations of guilt, and Cooper spun tales of the frontier recast into morality plays like the later ones of the Old West, Irving provided considerably lighter fare. Just as his best-known works, the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” made blithe entertainments spinning out the amusing if inconsequential lives of New York’s earlier inhabitants, his Tales of the Alhambra does much the same for both the Moors and Christians of Spain.

Part of the Romantic program, of course, was the celebration of the ethnic and the regional, and there can be no doubt of Irving’s contribution to the development of national consciousness. Yet his work contrasts with Byron’s titanic anti-heroes, Wordsworth’s nature enthusiasms, Coleridge’s transcendental flights, and Keats’ almost painful aestheticism. He is perhaps closest to Scott’s rummaging in his country’s history for narrative, but, though Scott’s novels always turn out well with a satisfying round of retributive justice, this happens only after what seem genuine bumps and obstacles along the way. Irving is dedicated to writing that raises no dangerous or uncomfortable issue and explores no dark corners of human nature. Even pathos evaporates under his warm benevolent gaze; his greatest seriousness is likely to take the form of sentiment.

Irving’s tone is fixed at the outset. In his dedication to David Wilkie he says they had been impressed as fellow travelers with the persistence of Islamic influence in Spain, and his friend urged him to “write something that should illustrate those peculiarities, something in the Haroun Alraschid styles, [sic] that should have a dash of that Arabian spice which pervades everything in Spain.” Further, he inscribes his volume of “arabesque sketches” to his friend “as a memorial of the pleasant scenes we have witnessed together in that land of adventure.” (13) As the Abbasid al-Rashid ruled in Baghdad (and Raqqa) far from Andalusia which had been conquered for the Ummayad dynasty by the Berber Tariq ibn Ziyad, the reference must be understood as a broad, unfocused reference to Islam in general. The blurring is significant. For Irving that entire tradition -- cultural, spiritual, and military -- is reduced to a dash of spice to awaken the flagging relish of his reader or to an exotic decorative motif, in fact, an arabesque. Doubtless he would have treated Indian or Chinese culture in just the same way.

Apart from the lure of the exotic, the book is animated by a mild if enthusiastic devotion to romantic love. Thus, after describing the Hall of the Two Sisters, Irving does not allow his account of its rich ornamentation to stand alone. He goes on, “It is impossible to contemplate this once favourite abode of Oriental manners without feeling the early association of Arabian romance, and almost expecting to see the white arm of some mysterious princess beckoning from the balcony or some dark eye sparkling through the lattice. (47)

Similar foggy fantasies regularly reappear. For instance, in the Court of the Lions “it needs but a slight exertion of the fancy to picture some pensive beauty of the harem, loitering in these secluded haunts of Oriental luxury.” (88) We are not far from the nineteenth century paintings of odalisques by Ingres and others.

In this aesthetic the very vagueness of these sirens constitutes a good portion of their charm. The allure of such undifferentiated heroines provides the impetus for such narrations as that of Ahmed al Kamel or the three beautiful princesses. Love generally triumphs and, if it does not, one can breathe a heart-felt if pleasant sigh and proceed to the next attraction on the agenda. Though he actually lived for a time in the Alhambra, Irving remains a true package-tour visitor, satisfied with curiosities and a marvel or two without looking very deeply into history, art, or human psychology.

Through the rose-colored glasses of the tourist “everything here appears calculated to inspire kind and happy feelings, for everything is delicate and beautiful. “ (88) The unfocused fuzziness of these adjectives is deliberate. Irving’s rhetoric is altogether conventional and most easily digestible with hardly an original turn. He is a comfortable author providing a very modest but also reliable positive sensation. The psychologists tell us that a similar dependable reward causes people to turn in idle moments to television or Facebook.

Yet the values are consistently and distinctly Romantic. Rather than the orderly garden, Irving appreciates the belated, almost post-apocalyptic wildness of a scene of departed grandeur. “In the present instance the effect was heightened by the wild and lonely nature of the place. We were on the naked and broken summit of the haunted Mountain of the Sun, where ruined tanks and cisterns and the mouldering foundations of extensive buildings spoke of former populousness, but where all was now silent and desolate.” (123)

As a tourist, he enjoys the temporary novelty of the scenes he visits while never doubting the superiority of his own culture. On his way the “sturdy Biscayan lad” he has hired as guide strikes him as “vain-glorious” (23), though he is “faithful, cheery, kind-hearted.” His condescending attitude is explicit in his naming the man Sancho after Don Quixote’s sidekick.

The same attitude recurs when he hires the “son of the Alhambra” Mateo Jimenez. His “valet, cicerone, guide, guard, and historiographic squire” (a partially submerged reference to Cervantes), a tout of the sort familiar to everyone who travels in poorer countries, represents his stance toward the country as a whole. He finds this “alert and officious wight” (64) “”at times an amusing companion; he is simple-minded and of infinite good humour with the loquacity and gossip of a village barber.” (65) Jimenez is diminished in just the same way the entire country, its history, and the human emotions of love and aggression are here declawed, tamed and rendered fit to divert the reader.

The volume ends with one of the most conventional of travelogue motifs, the setting sun, as the writer notes “thus ended one of the pleasantest dreams of a life which the reader perhaps may think has been but too much made up of dreams.” (354) Yet such a conclusion is a cliché because it is satisfying in a mild but reliable way. Even as dream, Irving’s portrait of Spain has nothing of the haunting power of many actual dreams; it is rather a easeful reverie, a recreation. The book is a breezy pleasure, and any pleasure is valuable and worth preserving. Thus we read Irving for one of the most important though little honored reasons for art: to pass the time.


Chapter list for cited quotations
13 dedication
47 “Interior of the Alhambra”
88 ”The Court of Lions”
123 “A Ramble Among the Hills”
23 “The Journey”
64 “The Household”
65 “The Household”
354 “The Author’s Farewell to Granada”

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Mule in Blues Imagery



Poetry typically contains a far greater concentration of rhetorical figures than prose. Figures of speech, thought, and sound regularly heighten the reader’s pleasure as well as refining the theme and tone. Each metaphor is a tiny riddle, the sudden solution of which provides a pleasure similar to that of many jokes. A sense of an exhilarated dance of ideas may be created by systematic image systems. But such figures are not mere ornamental decoration. They also allow the expression of new ideas and subtle shades of familiar ones. Rather than obscuring content, they render it precise.

Though, since the Romantic era, critics have celebrated “innovation” to the disadvantage of tradition. The use of such conventional images has been criticized as unimaginative, but a close study indicates that even when frequently used, a good poet will find the potential in such convention not only for considerable latitude, but even for eloquence.

One rhetorical device is allusion. Within every body of poetry, be it ancient Greek epic, troubadour lyric, or Elizabethan sonnets, certain poetic figures recur, building an ever-greater matrix of meaning. In the country blues tradition, one of the most beautiful and powerful bodies of American lyric in the first half of the twentieth century, a good many metaphors reflect the rural setting in which the songs were composed. With loving affection women are sometimes described as cows, while men may be compared to roosters. Another beast that occurs in a substantial number of early blues songs is the mule, the common work animal of the South. In a broad, though not inclusive, sample mules, which the listener might expect to be something of a cliché with a set, decodable meaning, in fact occupy a broad semantic field with a variety of implications. [1] Sometimes, indeed, they are the basis for set formulae which correspond more closely to popular ideas of a literary convention, while other uses are anomalous or unique.

In general the image of a mule is employed by the musical poets of the genre with rich flexibility. One finds characteristics associated with the animal that are familiar to even contemporary urbanites such as stubbornness, industriousness, and a powerful kick, but even these are far from identical in context.

One dramatic evidence for the image’s versatility is its near equal use to describe men and women. [2] In the songs in which the mule is identified with a man, the singer may refer to the mules stubbornness as when Barefoot Bill in “From Now On” sings “I’m going to “act just like a doggone mule.” A number of songs note the mule’s untiring capacity for labor. For instance, Blind Blake in his “Good-Bye Mama Moan” claims to his credit that ““I been your hard-working mule,” and Washboard Sam promises “I’ll work like a doggone mule” in “Save It for Me.”

In the regular structure of the poetic transformation of convention, [3] any association can be inverted, denied, or altered in a variety of other ways. For instance, whereas the two references just cited are positive, asserting the speaker’s qualifications as a partner, others are negative. Big Bill Broonzy in “Big Bill Blues” refuses to take orders from his beloved, saying, “cinch I ain’t going to be your mule,” and Sonny Boy Williamson indignantly objects, “You want Sonny Boy to be your mule.” (“Low Down Ways“). [4]

But the changes the poet can ring on the theme of the mule do not cease there. With a phrase very little different from those already cited, the physical power of the animal can also exemplify the singer’s sexual energy and endurance as in Will Weldon’s enthusiastic “Hitch Me to your Buggy and Drive Me Like a Mule.”

The mules may equally suggest the woman’s sexual energy as in Huddie Ledbetter’s “Honey, I’m All Out and Down” with its unmistakably erotic lines: “Wouldn't mind a jug : honey on the mule's
behind/Yes a brownskin woman : make a preacher lay his Bible down.” In Texas Alexander’s “Levee Camp Moan Blues” the mule is simply decodable as a lover: “Lord I couldn't find a mule” and the virtues of a country girl are said to make her a “jewel brown mule” (Walter Vincon and the Mississippi Sheiks, “She Ain’t No Good”). Her mule-like power is praised by Ed Bell whose lover is “strong as a mule” in “She’s a Fool Gal.”

The mule’s connotations may, however, be negative for women as well as men. For instance, Blind Lemon Jefferson says his beloved was acting “just like a balky mule.” (“Balky Mule Blues“ ) and Willie Baker in “Mama, Don’t Rush Me Blues” says “Mama you been just like : says a farmer's mule/longer I live with you : harder you is to rule.” [5]

A good share of the references to women as mules employ the set formula familiar to all blues lovers in a long list of variations all including the phrase “left me a mule to ride.” [6] In each of these songs, the singer notes the departure of his lover, often on a train, leaving him only a mule to ride. Ride, of course, is a common euphemism for sexual intercourse, so the formula simply states the love-longing of the singer, though sometimes including such subtle variations as David King’s lament in his “Sweet Potato Blues” that “the mule laid down and died.”

The other most common set formula is one in which the mule is again male: the complaint that the lover has been two-timed, that there is “another mule kicking in my stall.” Here the mule is again masculine with the stall representing the feminine. Very often the formula is simple as in Tampa Red’s “It’s Tight Like That”: “Found another mule : kicking in my stall.” [7] Variations include Kokomo Arnold’s reversal in “Your Ways and Actions”: “my mule is kicking in your stall” and the inclusion of the phrase in the old song “Seven Drunken Nights” [8] by Coley Jones in his “Drunkard’s Special” which includes the lines “I went home drunk as I could be/There's another mule in the stable : where my mule ought to be.”

There remain a number of usages of mule imagery that fit none of the patterns I have described. Several singers refer to actual mules with no apparent other meaning. For instance, Robert Wilkins’ “New Stock Yard Blues” speaks of actual stockyards and livestock purchasing and Sleepy John Estes’ “Tell Me About It” complains about a rural boss insisting that sharecroppers share a mule. [9] The effects of hard liquor are associated with the kick of a mule by Kid Prince Moore in “Bug Juice Blues” and by Robert Hicks (Barbecue Bob) in “Blind Pig Blues.” Blind Lemon Jefferson in “Long Lonesome Blues” declares “Well the blues come to Texas : loping like a mule,” though he might as well have said a rabbit or a deer. The endless variety of other potential uses for mule imagery is suggested by the miscellany of lines I have not yet mentioned. [10]

The use of poetic conventions, such as the mule image in American blues, is, like all figures of speech, not a code in which one word is simply substituted for another. It is a complex system of association and connotation that generates an ever-widening semantic field. Both through the calculated imprecision of the correspondence between tenor and vehicle and the additional enrichment of meaning through allusion, image clusters and other figures distinguish poetic from non-aesthetic uses of language. They enable the writer to express precise shades of thought as well as inviting delight from the receptive consumer.





1. My database is the excellent “Michael Taft’s Pre=War Blues Lyrics Concordance” available at http://dylan61.se/michael%20taft,%20blues%20anthology.txt.WebConcordance/framconc.htm. I have appended a complete list of songs from his catalogue that mention mules. In my essay songs and artists are cited by name, making them simple to locate on the list, whereas in endnotes I use sometimes the titles and sometimes only the numbers assigned to each. In the few cases in which several versions of a song were released in the same year, the texts differ enough that the reader may have to check each to find the relevant material.

2. In fourteen songs the mule is identified with a man and in seventeen with a woman. References to men occur is 7, 9, 10, 11, 13, 14, 15, 21, 24, 26, 30, 43, 44, and 47. Those to women are in 2, 4, 6, 8, 13, 20, 27, 28, 34, 35, 39, 40, 42, 48

3. For the general concept see my “Transformation of Convention” on this site. For specific applications in practical criticism, see, among other essays available here “Transformation of Convention in Early Minnesang,” “The Early English Carol,” or “William IX.”

4. See also the similar complaint in Richard Rabbit Brown’s “James Alley Blues”: “she want to drive me like a mule.”

5. Similarly Roosevelt Sykes in “No Good Woman Blues” says, “I won't try no mule : that don't know gee from haw/I don't want no woman : she just soon as say yes as to say no”

6. The formula appears in 13, 20, 34, 39, and 48.

7. The formula appears also in 4, 11, 16, 18, 32, 33, 41, and 49.

8. “Seven Drunken Nights” is the usual Irish title. This popular, slightly ribald song is a variation of the Scottish one collected by Child “Our Goodman.” It is related as well to the English broadside "The Merry Cuckold and the Kind Wife."

9. In a similar vein Sleepy John Estes in “Working Man Blues” inveighs against automation, saying “white folks you ought to work/ More mules and men.”

10. For Blind Willie McTell a mule’s tail suggests public hair. (“Kind Mama”) In Blind Bogus Ben Covington’s “Boodle-Um-Bum Bum” “scared my mule away” refers to the singer’s dope selling being disturbed. For Peter Chatman (Memphis Slim) “son just don't lead a doggone mule” means to look out for number one. (“Me, Myself, and I”) In Big Bill Broonzy’s “Grandma’s Farm” “got a note my black mule died” means a change of lovers. Finally Charlie Bozo Nickerson’s line in “Move that Thing,” while obscure, is doubtless obscene: “The mules backed up : in my face.”






1. Texas Alexander “Awful Moaning Blues. Pt. 2” 1929
2. Texas Alexander “Levee Camp Moan Blues 1927 (two versions)
3. Kokomo Arnold “Front Door Blues” 1925
4. Kokomo Arnold “Front Door Blues” 1935
5. Kokomo Arnold “Your Ways and Actions” 1938
6. Willie Baker “Mama, Don’t Rush Me Blues” 1929
7. Barefoot Bill (Ed Bell) “From Now On” 1929
8. Ed Bell “She’s a Fool Gal” 1930
9. Blind Blake “Bootleg Rum Dum Blues” 1928
10. Blind Blake “Goodbye Mama Moan” 1928
11. Big Bill (Broonzy) “Big Bill Blues” 1932 (two versions)
12. Big Bill (Broonzy) “Grandma’s Farm” (two versions) 1920
13. Richard Rabbit Brown “James Alley Blues” 1927
14. Washboard Sam (Robert Clifford Brown) “Lowland Blues” 1937
15. Washboard Sam (Robert Clifford Brown) “Save It for Me” 1938
16. Charlie Campbell “Goin’ Away Blues” 1937
17. Peter Chatman (Memphis Slim) “Me, Myself, and I” 1941
18. Kid Cole “Niagara Fall Blues” 1928
19. Blind Bogus Ben Covington “Boodle-Um-Bum Bum” 1928
20. Walter Davis “Travelin’ this Lonesome Road” 1935
21. Memphis Minnie (Lizzie Douglas) “He’s in the Ring” 1935
22. Sleepy John Estes “Tell Me About It” 1940
23. Sleepy John Estes “Working Man Blues” 1941
24. Hound Head Henry “Low Down Hound Blues” 1928
25. Robert Hicks (Barbecue Bob) “Blind Pig Blues” 1928
26. Son House “My Black Mama, Part 1” 1930
27. Blind Lemon Jefferson “Balky Mule Blues“ 1929
28. Blind Lemon Jefferson “Lemon’s Worried Blues” 1928
29. Blind Lemon Jefferson “Long Lonesome Blues” 1926
30. Blind Lemon Jefferson “Rabbit Foot Blues” 1926
31. Coley Jones “Drunkard’s Special” 1929 (five recordings)
32. Maggie Jones “You May Go But You’ll Come Back Some Day” 1924
33. Stovepipe No. 1 (Sam Jones) “Bed Slats” 1927
34. David King “Sweet Potato Blues” 1930 (two versions)
35. Huddie Ledbetter “Honey, I’m All Out and Down” 1925
36. Blind Willie McTell “Kind Mama” 1929
37. Kid Prince Moore “Bug Juice Blues” 1936
38. Charlie Bozo Nickerson “Move that Thing” 1920
39. Bessie Smith “J.C. Holmes Blues” 1925
40. Roosevelt Sykes “No Good Woman Blues” 1930 (two versions)
41. Henry Thomas “Texas Easy Street Blues” 1928
42. Walter Vincon (Mississippi Sheiks) “She Ain’t No Good” 1930
43. Will Weldon (Casey Bill) “Hitch Me to your Buggy and Drive Me Like a Mule” 1927
44. Peetie Wheatstraw “When a Man Gets Down” 1936
45. Tampa Red (Hudson Whitaker) “It’s Tight Like That” 1928
46. Robert Wilkins “New Stock Yard Blues” 1935
47. Sonny Boy Williamson “Low Down Ways“ 1938
48. Sonny Boy Williamson “Shotgun Blues” 1941 (two versions)
49. Leola B. Wilson “Back-Biting Bee Blues” 1926


Notes on Recent Reading 31 [Marlowe, Trollope, p'Bitek]



The Jew of Malta (Marlowe)

The Jew of Malta is as full of plot turns as a Hitchcock film and consistently supported by Marlowe’s marvelous swinging pentameters. Its dark and cynical world is signaled by the initial appearance of the Senecan ghost of Machiavelli (called Machiavel, surely in part to sound like “make-evil”) who boasts in the prologue:

Admired I am of those that hate me most.
Though some speak openly against my books,
Yet they will read me and thereby attain
To Peter’s chair.

As Jews had been expelled from England in 1290 by Edward I, it is unlikely that many in Marlowe’s audience had ever seen one. Still, anti-Semitic stereotypes were sufficiently persistent that the play includes a reference to ritual murder of children and the title character is not only rapaciously greedy and amoral, but also has a large nose (apparently an artificial one for the stage). It seems likely that Marlowe, notoriously an unbeliever in an age when atheism or even heterodoxy could be most severely punished, was himself little concerned with the issue of Jewishness except as a sign of outsider status. There are several unnamed minor Jewish characters who do not seem monstrous; Ithamore, the Muslim slave, is fully as vicious as his Hebrew master, and the Christian Governor of Malta shrinks from no deceit in pursuit of his interests. When the two friars are competing for Barabas’ patronage, they fall to blows. Surely, then, the Jew is a Jew symbolically, employing conventions already centuries old, and the slur, if slur it be, is against humanity itself..


The Prime Minister (Trollope)

I have elsewhere discussed the slightly guilt-tinged pleasure I find in Trollope. The Prime Minister, for all its thousand pages, is little different from others. It possesses, indeed, boasts of, the same placid confidence in things as we find them and people as they are with the exception of a few unmanly scoundrels (and with gaze averted from the lower orders except for an occasional comic or pathetic turn). The faults of those who are not scoundrels derive always from weakness or simple-mindedness and are thus treated with considerable indulgence. This volume ends in a celebratory wedding and thus may claim the name of comedy, though a good deal of the sentimental is folded in along the way. Perhaps the clearest indicator of Trollope’s tone is the sort of names he tosses off, especially for lesser characters. In The Prime Minister himself plays a considerable role, for how could a Duke of Omnium do otherwise, and along the way the reader encounters such characters as Sir Orlando Drought, Lord Cantrip, Sir Timothy Beeswax, the Earl of Earlybird, Sir Damask Monogram, the Marquis of Mount Fidgett, Mr. Rattler, and Sir Omicron Pie.


Song of Lawino (Okot p’Bitek)

This poem, by the Ugandan Okot p’Bitek was originally written in the middle 1950s in metered and rhymed lines in the Luo language of the author’s Acholi people. Its free verse translation by the author a decade later was widely read, the first long African poem to enjoy global attention. The work shares with p’Bitek’s first novel, Lak Tar Miyo Kinyero Wi Lobo (1953, later translated into English as White Teeth) the theme of conflict between tradition and modernity, between African custom and European practice. The poem, subtitled “An African Lament,” details the grievances of a first wife whose husband has taken to Western tastes including a citified second wife. Using what the reader can only assume to be the literary devices of Luo poetry and employing some arresting figures of speech, the neglected wife praises the value of customary mores and calls her husband a dog of the whites, though ready to turn tp praising him as the son of a chief if he will only himself take pride in his African culture. The book’s success brought some knowledge of African practices to curious American and European readers. As in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the footnotes are conveniently edited into the story. The author deserves credit for trying to employ indigenous language in a work of modern literature, but the worthy experiment yielded a disappointing result. It is enough to see the woodcut illustrations by Frank Horley which look as though they belong is a child’s storybook.