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

Monday, January 1, 2018


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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
Bukka White's Limpid Lyric Clarity (November 2017)
"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)
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)
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)

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)

Pindar’s Athlete in Pythian 8

This essay quotes the English translation edited by Diane Arnson Svarlien on the very useful Tufts Perseus website. Line numbers are in parentheses.

Apart from Classicists, who reads Pindar? And yet we have a generous share of his poetry though it is a small fraction of his collected works. Several factors may play a role apart from the general decay of interest in antiquity. Pindar depends on his readers’ familiarity with the immense web of mythology by which the Greeks and, indeed, all pre-modern people made sense of their world. Like most writers immersed in a living culture, he assumes that he need not narrate the stories of the gods and heroes but need only allude to them, often in fleeting and oblique references. Even the specialist may consult a reference now and then for names and stories that Pindar’s original audience knew from childhood. Footnotes and a Classical encyclopedia with a modicum of patience and rereading can remedy this defect for the motivated reader, but I suspect there is another way in which contemporary American culture has deviated from the ancient Greek’s that might interfere with our appreciation of his writing.

Though American now has gymnasia springing up on every corner and joggers jostle each other in parks and roadsides, athletics had an even more prominent place in Thebes in the fifth century B.C.E. In part perhaps due to the need to be prepared for total mobilization in wartime, in part associated with a pervasive homoeroticism, and in part reflecting the pursuit of arête in all fields, athletics was celebrated by the Greeks. In my own youth we assumed that intellectuals and athletes were largely mutually exclusive categories, often antagonistic. Physical “education” has always seemed to me a contradiction, and university athletics a maddeningly unjustifiable distraction in higher education. Never in my adult life have I watched a sporting event. Yet I adore Pindar, most of whose surviving works are in praise of victors in competitive athletic contests. What did physical culture mean in the ancient world?

For all today’s fashion for fitness, we are likely to be surprised when Socrates upbraids Epigenes for being out of shape. [1] Socrates cites many reasons in support of universal physical conditioning, noting first of all that a good citizen must always be prepared for war. Yet he does not stop there. He maintains that workouts lead to not only better health and longevity, but also to better cognitive function. Finally he notes that “it is a disgrace to grow old through sheer carelessness before seeing what manner of man you may become by developing your bodily strength and beauty to their highest limit.” Here is an almost aesthetic argument: pride should lead to exercise from a desire to excel not in functional strength alone but in beauty as well and not merely the beauty of a buff physique, but that associated with fulfilling one’s potential.

As a professional poet Pindar may have written his victory odes for the same reason that another gifted writer might compose soft drink jingles, because someone will pay for such a product. But, apart from effusive praise of the winners, their families and hometown, he includes a more elaborate and subtle version of the final justification offered by Socrates.

According to Pindar, “with a willing mind” a person “may observe a certain harmony on every step of my way.” (66-7) That harmony is the experience of the deep order present in the kosmos which one may glimpse through excellence of any sort.

The poem opens with an address to Hesychia, a personification of peace and serenity, associated with Aigina as a well-ruled thriving city. It may seem incongruous that a figure of peace should also be identified as “holding the supreme keys of counsels and of wars,” (3-4), but Hesychia is described as daughter of Justice, and justice, of course, requires enforcement and, at times, even coercion. The kind of calm Pindar has in mind is not empty, but rather a beautiful order of the sort the Greeks saw in the universe as a whole. The Greek word kosmos fundamentally means well-organized, and has both moral and aesthetic dimensions, being used to indicate good behavior or morality and also beauty. Only when a system is properly ordered may it be quiet and calm.

This peace may be threatened by forces represented in mythological terms by monsters and giants. In Pythian 8 these are Typhoeus and Porphyrion who are defeated by Zeus and Apollo respectively. The successful battle against these archaic forces of evil by gods associated with Hesychia is the theme of the first triad of the poem. The same Apollo that overcame disorder in the past welcomes the victor in the present day.

The second triad praises the excellence of the rulers of Aigina, the Aiakidai, descendents of Aiakos, son of Aigina and Zeus and the origin of the family of the Meidulidai to which Aristomenes belonged. Aigina had a close relationship to the poet’s own city of Thebes and a disproportionate numbers of his odes are concerned with athletes from that island. Though mentioning other prominent athletes from Aigina, he turns in the epode from the heroic activities of these Aiginitans‎ in a rhetorical apophasis, saying he cannot linger on their greatness but can only speak of Aristomenes, “the nearest of all beautiful things,” and in this way “take flight” through art. At the end of the epode he makes a transition from Aigina to his own city of Thebes by mentioning the words of the prophet Amphiaraus who saw there “by nature the genuine spirit of the fathers is conspicuous in the sons.” (45-6)

By lauding the deeds of Alcmaeon and Adrastus he not only provides a conventional if oblique compliment to Aristomenes, he also places the action of the athletic contest of the present in the context of the legendary past and places the living individuals in a lineage that includes Oedipus, and Laius, Labdacus, and Cadmus before him. These stories legitimize and transform the suffering and struggles of the present by placing them in perspective as inevitable and divinely ordained, an opportunity for heroes to realize their own heroism.

Among the countless details of the mythic patterns that shape the poet’s view of the Theban wrestler’s victory are the circumstances of Amphiarus’ participation in the campaign of the epigonoi. The seer himself is a type like Achilles of fortitude in the face of an adverse destiny and his son Alkmaion’s qualities magnify the achievement of Aristomenes. Alkmaion is said to be the poet’s “neighbor” and “guardian” of his possessions as well as the source of prophetic oracles. (56-60) According to Diodorus Alkmaion was persuaded to participate in the attack against his first inclinations by his mother Eriphyle who had been bribed by Thersander with the necklace or, in some versions, the robe of Harmonia, objects which had already a history of cursing their owners. This incident, clearly a doublet of her earlier sending her husband into battle due to being offered the very same necklace by Polynices, casts an ambiguous light on harmony and order itself. Here harmony leads to deception and death and consequently to the violation of taboo when Alkmaion later kills his mother in revenge.

The web of myth invoked by the poet connects with the present through innumerable other associations, introducing not only a rich and rounded vision, but one that highlights irreducible radical ambivalence. Yet he is altogether sincere in his invocation of Hesychia because arête is a refuge from the unwinnable game of life. One is uplifted through the practice of excellence by a miraculous afflatus. A parallel role is played by the phorminx or lyre in Pythian 1 whose music is said to bring calm and order even to the world of the gods.

The redemptive power of developing one’s abilities “to the highest limit” is what Socrates recommended to Epigenes, saying that only in that way might he might see “what manner of man you may become.” And the motive is urgent. Buddha’s preaching pictured the unenlightened consciousness in this harsh world as a man whose house is burning or who has been struck by a poisoned arrow. Though Pindar does not use such dramatic images, he looks at life with open eyes and finds the human existential circumstance not merely threatening but approaching the unbearable. The problem inspires some the poet’s loftiest moralizing, familiar sententiae to be sure, but informed here by passion and depth. The conclusion of this poem celebrating human achievement focuses instead on human impotence.

But the delight of mortals grows in a short time, and then it falls to the ground, shaken by an adverse thought. [95] Creatures of a day. What is someone? What is no one? Man is the dream of a shadow. (96)

This last phrase echoes the very language of the celebrated gatha in the Diamond Sutra .

All conditioned dharmas
Are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, shadows,
Like dew drops or a lightning flash.

Hanging in a void, feet resting on nothing, one can yet feel a sort of liberation in the thrill of art, a kind of yogic focus in extraordinary athletic achievement, a thrill at acts of unusual wisdom, compassion, or courage. In celebrating the victor of a wrestling match, Pindar celebrates the human species, which in the face of mortality and suffering, nonetheless strives, and sometimes succeeds, in bathing in the “shining light” of Zeus, and, for a time at least, experiencing a “gentle lifetime.” By ignoring ESPN, perhaps I have failed to note that fans of NFL are, in their own way, seeking spiritual sustenance along with beer and chips. Pindar might have thought so.

1. Xenophon, Memorabilia of Socrates, 3.12.1 -13.

The Heart of the Blues

The text follows.

Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” immediately places the listener in the heart of the blues, lamenting in an artful manner and in that way transcending or at any rate accepting the pain of life. The title itself has a certain stately, slightly learned sound, as though it might have been found in a sonnet or a madrigal (an association I find also in “Careless Love” though that song is, I think, unknown prior to Buddy Bolden). “Vain” may well be derived from church usages, perhaps sermons on Ecclesiastes.

The primary reference is eros; in the first stanza the persona’s lover is departing and he follows hopeless to the station, under her spell but unable to alter the fact of their separation. His feeling of helplessness and confusion is eloquently expressed in the line “Well, it's hard to tell, it's hard to tell, when all your love's in vain.” He sounds as though he were dazed from a concussion as well as lovelorn.

Tension mounts in the second stanza when he establishes a valedictory eye contact in a final attempt to appeal for reconciliation. Yet the gesture only depresses him further: “Well, I was lonesome, I felt so lonesome, and I could not help but cry.”

The song focuses on the lyric moment of the departure of the beloved on a train, yet this precise focus, like the pinhole opening of a camera oscura, provides a much broader view. The pain of love longing is generalized from sexual romance to suggest all suffering but, further, the fundamental anxiety of our species when contemplating the passage of time.

The third and climactic stanza is most compact of all. The suffering of life has been compressed into the train’s lights, shrinking and shortly disappearing into the void, leaving the singer devastated and yet still singing. The red and blue lights come to signify the phantasmagoric world of everyday phenomenal reality passing as the river of time flows on unstoppable. The most essential formulation of the speaker’s existential woe is not a woman or other specific sources of pain, but rather the constant passage of time. The train’s vanishing lights represent the reality that is constantly slipping away from us, suggesting the same poignant feeling as a train’s distant whistle or, in Yuan drama, the cries of wild geese. In this way each of us will one day see the world itself receding.

In the song’s coda the lover transcends language itself, adding moans and cries to the name of the beloved and ending by repeating the theme: “all my love’s in vain.” He howls like a beast or a madman. The only articulate utterance he can manage is the name of the loved one.

Even in this final pit of despair, the tone is mournful but elegiac, implying strength and fortitude. In spite of the persona’s trials, he retains a certain self-possession suggested by the tight poetic form, with its fourteen syllable lines, the first pair of which repeats a concrete Image and the final line stating a subjective mood with uncompromising inevitable iambs. The rhythm insists, “what is, is right,” and the part of wisdom is submission. One may cry, but one may simultaneously sing.

Thus suffering is transfigured by art, and the singer from Hazlehurst, Mississippi joins with the ancient Hebrew preacher (and the Buddha and a range of sages before and after) who with measured and melodious words look with open eyes and call out “Vanitas, vanitatum! All is vanity!”


I followed her to the station with a suitcase in my hand. (2x)
Well, it's hard to tell, it's hard to tell, when all your love's in vain.

(chorus) All my love's in vain.

When the train rolled up to the station, I looked her in the eyes. (2x)
Well, I was lonesome, I felt so lonesome, and I could not help but cry.

When the train, it left the station, with two lights on behind. (2x)
The blue light was my blues; the red light was my mind.

Hoo-hoo, ooh, Willie Mae
Oh oh hey, hoo, Willie Mae
Hoo-hoo, ooh, eeh, oh woe
All my love's in vain

Notes on Recent Reading 34 (Hawthorne, Huncke, Bentley)

The House of Seven Gables (Hawthorne)

Hawthorne took the Gothic novel toward sublimity with this Protestant New England tale in which the role the supernatural plays in the plot while essential is always secondary to the moralizing. The modern reader may find Phoebe a bit cloying in her sweetness and Judge Pyncheon too vicious, but the narrative is gripping, the roots in American history are deep and authentic, and the rhetoric is a pleasure. Hawthorne has the leisurely way of old novelists of lingering over the trees or the weather and yielding to distraction by village side scenes, but these pauses are virtually all lyrical, and they build together to an image system that reinforces the whole in a way that few novelists can achieve. Though Phoebe, Holgrave, Hepzibah enjoy a happy ending,, sweeping even Uncle Venner with them, their unmixed bliss might ring hollow after the earlier concentration on sin which has generated the curse that oppressed the Pyncheons for generations. Their suffering occurs in a context of a town regularly portrayed as venal, gossipy, and ruled by selfish hypocrites. The economic theme of the ruling class oppressing the poor governs the conflict between Pyncheon and Maule even if it is magically dissolved by marriage in the end. Hawthorne provides as good an answer as most to the question of how one may live in an irretrievably fallen world. D. H. Lawrence found a “diabolical undertone” in The Scarlet Letter, and he would doubtless have sniffed the same sulfur in the Pyncheons’ Salem, but in fact Hawthorne was neither of the devil’s party nor on the side of the institutional angels. He was caught between, a dilemma that describes most of us, and there his strength lies.

The Herbert Huncke Reader (Huncke)

Though I have been fascinated by the possibilities in life and literature offered by the Beat writers since my adolescence, I had never read Huncke. Having just finished this sizable, anthology, I don’t feel unhappy about my long neglect. Huncke is no stylist. Ginsberg’s praise of his writing illustrates generosity to an old friend more than a literary judgement. Yet I am susceptible, as were the Beats when they met him, to his outsider charm. As junkie, thief, and sexual hustler he is as demi-mondaine as they come. And he doesn’t make it easy for his buddies, lovers, or readers; he is completely upfront about his readiness to rip off whoever was available when he needed cash without worrying about hurting friends or strangers. Still, in the life he led he accumulated countless stories and he is a decent story-teller, leaving his narratives so unembellished that they seem as though they must be true. Readers with a taste for the scene will relish these tales from a very real and genuinely dangerous edge of experience. I would not have cared to go straight through, but in small doses most of his sketches have their rewards. Those who are fascinated by the Beat scene will find a great deal here, even if much is unprocessed. I will doubtless retell such moments as Bill Burroughs’ first taste of opiates. (Huncke suspected Burroughs of being a narc and noted his Chesterfield overcoat, already fifteen years out of style.)

A Modern Tragedy (Bentley)

Phyllis Bentley was a bestselling author in Britain (and did very well in the USA) from the thirties through the fifties. Much of her fiction was centered in her region, the West Riding of Yorkshire where the textile trade dominated the economy and the author’s father was a mill owner. This 1934 novel, basically a love story about inadequate love, is shadowed by the Depression, and Bentley, though conservative in her sympathies, reveals considerable insider detail about the manufacturing processes of the industrial firms that produced cloth and the class structure that supported the economy. Characters are clearly sorted into upper class, among which one finds “proper” operators with old-fashioned integrity and a sharp dealer who does not shrink from fraud; middle class, striving to rise while fearing a fall. The workers, who include a fiery radical union activist reminiscent of Peter Sellers’ Fred Kite in I’m All Right Jack, seem tacked on for the sake of completeness. The primary market for the book, of course, lay largely with the first two groups. While expressing distress at the suffering of the poor, for instance in Rosamond’s reaction to the hunger marchers, the novelist accepts the whole system and suggests that the left-wing Milner Schofield is an activist for reasons more psychological than political while the aged mill owner Henry Clay Crosland is morally exemplary. A few romances cross the upper and middle class lines; the workers are in this way neglected.

I would not be as harsh as the Kirkus reviewer who, at the novel’s publication called it “weak in plot and unconvincing in characterization.” The prose is straightforward for the most part, ignoring the radical innovations in fiction that had appeared well before its publication. Bentley goes in more for moments of pathos or insight into character than for flights of rhetoric, but the story is well-designed with an opening scene that accumulates significance as the narrative proceeds. Walter’s descent into collusion with crime is quite believable, though I can’t swallow Tasker’s return to face prosecution. Not a bad read, this is the sort of book once called “middlebrow,” the sort that can still bring works of fiction to today’s market, glutted as it has become with self-help and glib celebrities.

I suppose it is a sign of its lasting appeal that A Modern Tragedy survives in audiobooks today. Many critics seem to prefer Bentley’s earlier Inheritance.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Notes on Recent Reading 33 (Tourneur, Peacock, Greene)

The Atheist’s Tragedy (Tourneur)

This play, the only dramatic work now credited to Cyril Tourneur, is generally mentioned in literary histories as an example of the revenge play or the tragedy of blood and indeed a number of corpses do accumulate in the course of the story. A ghost appears as in the Senecan precedent, but, unlike Hamlet’s father, Montferrers’ spirit counsels leaving retribution to providence, thus rendering his very appearance adventitious. Similarly, the principal villains, D’Amville and Levidulcia both repent when they realize their end is at hand. Indeed, without the former’s unlikely confession at the end, Charlmont would not have been saved. The author’s apparent orthodox Christianity contrasts with Marlowe’s heroes who at times suggest an atheism likely shared by the author. Nonetheless, Tourneur includes a caricatured hypocritical Puritan, Languebeau Snuffe, whose attempt to seduce Soquette is quite ridiculous.

The blank verse is raggedy, with many hypometric lines unjustified by content and awkward transitions from prose to poetry within a single speech. Still, Tourneur is capable of some fine metaphors and clever double entendre-based comedy, the story summons up powerful back-brain emotions associated with sex and violence, and the plot could, I think, engage an audience with its action even today.

Headlong Hall and Nightmare Abbey (Peacock)

The two works are published together by Everyman’s Library, the grand series which, like the Modern Library, provided literature tastefully presented and at the most modest price. They are still available, but, at prices like $18 a volume, they have lost much of their appeal to the impecunious.

In Headlong Hall the first of Peacock’s conversation-based romans à clef, a group of guests gather at a country estate, each riding his own hobby horse. The vogues of 1815 are all satirized alike, providing an entertaining account of what people were then talking about. We encounter the perfectibilarian who thinks all things are evolving for the better and the deteriorationist who is convinced of the opposite while the “status-quo-ite” mediates between them. Among the other characters are critics, poets, a painter, a female novelist, a phrenologist, a landscape gardener, an appetitive divine, and a rough rendering of Coleridge in the person of Panscope. Though virtually nothing happens in the course of the narrative, the conversation is constant and amusingly interlarded with unusual words, arch footnotes, and unlikely classical quotations. They are considerably more fun than Peacock’s lyrics which the generous reader will find facile and good-natured. The story, such as it is, ends with the earlier general tone of geniality heightened by a round of prospective marriages that provides a cheery optimistic conclusion. Jenkison, the status-quo-ite, has the last word, saying, as the reader may imagine the author saying as well, “the scales of my philosophical balance remain eternally equiponderant.” The book’s appeal is doubtless to the bookish which is to say I enjoyed my second reading as much as I had my first.

In Nightmare Abbey, Peacock has constructed a work both more shapely in general and more pointed in particulars. Here the story, and there is more of a story, centers on Scythrop, a version of Shelley caricatured to emphasize the brooding Sturm und Drang aspect of his sensibility. Other actors (perhaps more accurately called speakers) include Mr. Flosky, a devotee of German idealism like Coleridge, the Byronic Mr. Cypress who provides the opportunity to satirize passages from Childe Harold, the Manichaean Mr. Toobad (based on J. P. Newton), the Honourable Mr. Listless, a languid fop based on a school friend of Shelley. (That original, incidentally, just to show that reality may outdo imagination, was the extravagant dandy Sir Lumley Skeffington.) The plot involves Scythrop’s inability to choose between two lovers after his rejection by another. These have been associated with Harriet Grove, Harriet Westbrook, and Mary Godwin. An author lacking Peacock’s ethereally light touch would surely never have ventured to represent that progression of loves purely in fun. But Peacock’s own spokesman in Nightmare Abbey is the buoyant Mr. Hilary whose genial good humor is all but irresistible, making all partisanship somewhat absurd and suffering somehow beside the point.

Journey without Maps (Greene)

In 1935 Graham Greene traveled for a month through the African bush, mostly in Liberia, in search of something like the prelapsarian world. The reader must surely be impressed by the rigors of the trip: the lengthy daily hiking along faint or unmarked trails, the inhospitable climate, the numerous parasites and vermin (who knew that rural African huts typically contain families of rats?), and the very real threat of disease. In addition, he was managing a multi-tribal hired crew of thirty or so and, to top it off, now and then passed through areas ruled by authorities endowed with arbitrary power. The territory he crossed was literally unknown at the time – he notes that the U.S. Government map leaves the entire center of Liberia blank except for the single word: cannibals.

Greene’s account is fascinating and well-written. He excels at imagistic lists and effective rhetorical effects, though his occasional use of non-African material works less well. Greene is particularly good at conveying the “seediness” of semi-civilized regions and the disagreeable details of life in the deep bush. He regularly expresses what might be called a “preferential option” for the traditional life which he portrays as, at any rate, more intense, direct, and, in some sense, real than the life to which he is accustomed. His accounts of African religion are generally sympathetic though he makes little effort to understand specific practices or beliefs. His fundamental rejection of exploitation, including the weird Liberian regime, led him to reject European colonialism as well as domestic tyranny. Surely his perspective is governed in part by the specter of world-wide depression and European fascism. In the end, though, the reader remembers his worn shoes, aching muscles, and the constant plagues such as “jiggers” that had to be extracted from beneath the toenails. He had a difficult time rationing his whisky to last until the trip’s end.

His cousin, Barbara Greene, accompanied him on the trek. Her own account, published as Too Late to Turn Back, differs, I understand, in many details from his.

The Artist as Demiurge: Seligmann on Space

This essay introduces the Seligmann Center’s publication of the fourth of Kurt Seligmann’s New School lectures. They are available from the Center or through me for $15 apiece. Each includes a reproduction of Seligmann’s typescript together with scholarly and artistic responses.

Unattributed quotations are from the present lecture.

Kurt Seligmann’s lecture “The Quest of Space” opens by noting the distinction between the physical space of the two dimensional canvas and the imaginative space created by the artist. He then proceeds to discuss the relations between these and the space of lived experience. Though Seligmann considers historical techniques for achieving the illusion of three dimensions, his essential interest is not in photorealistic verisimilitude but rather the potential for art to create an autonomous zone, no longer dependent on observed reality but subject only to the creator’s vision.

Having posed in this way the fundamental challenge of visual invention, he conducts a painter’s tour through art history making cogent comments on cave paintings, Italian Renaissance, and modern works. Many of his observations are suggestive, even impressionistic, inviting further speculation rather than making dogmatic statements. His account contrasts the unframed floating images of palaeolithic art with the ancient Near Eastern works with which the artist “overcomes his awe of the boundless by magico-plastic means.” These poles, which might be termed the realistic and the magical, define the issue for Seligmann. Pragmatic rather than dogmatic in his general assumptions, he allows for the claims of expressive theories such as those promoted by the Romantics and functional theories in which the most important element is an effect on the consumer such as didactic art and pure entertainment, yet his own orientation is closer to formalist theories that focus on qualities in the work itself such as those of aestheticists and New Critics.

He discusses a succession of artistic practices, medieval, Renaissance, academic, impressionist, and Surrealist, providing flashes of fresh understanding more often than not, but always pursuing his grander theme. Though the question seems at times in his exposition a technical matter, for Seligmann artistic creation of space reenacts the creation of the universe described in the opening line of Genesis. Using concepts derived more from philosophic and Hermetic sources than Hebrew ones, he seeks to establish the artist as an independent quasi-divine demiurge whose creations are self-justifying. Spurning the concept of artistic creation as imitation of reality and also the Surrealist faith in the integrity of the unconscious and of chance, he asserts the autonomy of the imagination.

In this emphasis he distances himself from many earlier writers. The most widespread view, dominant from Plato until recent times, regards art as mimesis of the perceived world, but Seligmann specifically opposes the sufficiency of imitation. For him realism misses the point; its pursuit abdicates the potential of art and, in the crushing phrase he used in “Artist, Canvas, Reality,” realism is “the lowest of tastes.” When he lectured on “Space” he maintained that art is always artificial, “a world in itself . . . alluding to reality, a symbol of reality, a mirage of the thought rather of the real, than of the reality itself.” The greatest medieval paintings are “artifices in the image of creation which was the work of the greatest of all artificers, God.”

In realistic cave paintings, on the other hand, as there are “no limiting edges,” there can therefore be no distinction between the world and the objet d’art, and this requisite artificiality remains still out of grasp. By attempting to mirror what we see, the realistic artist forecloses the possibility of a more profound truth. For Seligmann the move from applying images to available rock surfaces without any “frame” to “the invention of the four edges of a painting” is “most important.” Within a defined space the artist may create a work which “stands for the universe,” in effect, a new cosmos.

He contrasts the random “realism” of cave paintings that reflects the mundane vision available to all eyes with ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian art works which, he argues, create a “safety zone” in which people are protected from chaos. We moderns, having emerged from the long era of faith stretching from archaic times until the nineteenth century, may yet take refuge in the similarly “foolhardy optimism” of magic which, like religion, promises an intelligible, orderly, and significant cosmos. An accurate vision of the whole would indicate the interrelationships of all parts as a sort of unity in variety akin to that of a multi-faceted diamond. To explore these linkages between micro- and macrocosm is the artist’s task.

Seligmann dissented not only from the traditional theories of art as imitation, but also from Surrealist doctrine and practice which valued chance and the unconscious. He is surely challenging Breton when he condemns “haphazardness,” declaring “conception cannot reconcile itself with chance.” Further, “Artist Canvas Reality” made clear his reliance on conscious “Mind” in conceiving new art. Reluctant to identify with any other theoretical formulation, he considers Space itself to be in exile in 1953 (just as he and many of his friends had been), yet he predicts a rebirth of this “artistic space” in spite of the fact that “the plastic means used by the surrealists seem to be hostile to any deep and clear space construction.”

The upshot of his rejection at once of the traditional and academic view and of his generation’s leading avant-garde formation is his judgement that “the boldest works of our time are . . . eclectic” and among these he must surely include his own. In “Artist Canvas Reality” Seligmann had described art as a “mysterious transubstantiation” using the language of Roman Catholic ritual to imply the quasi-divine status of the artist. He notes that the artist can create “a well understood world order to which everything the big and the small, the distant and the close submits.” “The work of art,” he goes on, seeks thus to render visible the “intercourse between the limited and the limitless.” In this way “boundless time and the time of human history reflect one another.” The system works, as he notes in his lecture on “Magic” because art, like mysticism or magic (including the kabbalah), reveals that “all is contained in all,” the universal in every the particular.

Seligmann’s idea of art is closely allied with his interest in magic and the occult. The written tradition originates with certain passages in Plato (who elsewhere endorsed the imitation theory) and continues through Longinus, spreading with Neoplatonism, and becoming dominant with the Romantics. In the Ion and elsewhere Plato speaks of the artist as god-like, divinely inspired. The idea of the creator as demiurge rooted in passages of Plato is later critical to mystical texts which in turn underlay occult thought including that of the Hermetic Corpus which Seligmann found so significant. Plato’s Timaeus argues that the universe is so orderly and beautiful that is must surely be the product of a demiurge, that is to say, a craftsman or artist whose work is purposive, rational, and benevolent, the intentional product of mind (nous), a term Seligmann employs similarly. According to Seligmann the Persian deity Mazda “carved out” a portion of space-time “in which one can live.” Through imitation of this supreme intellect people may fulfil their highest destiny.

Neoplatonism sustained these ideas. According to Plotinus "every particular thing is the image within matter of the Intellectual Principle which itself images the Divine Being." Such theories reentered European culture with vigor during the Renaissance through the publication of the Corpus Hermeticum and the writings of Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola. From this theory arise the complex multiple meanings of such paintings as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. What Ficino called “natural magic” to distinguish it from black magic relies on the mystic connections between natural phenomena, their mental representation, and the design of the cosmos.

In specific terms, for Seligmann this means that “the small expresses the large,” a principle echoing the Hermetic microcosm/macrocosm relationship. The Smaragdine Tablet, attributed to Hermes Trismegistus and passed down by Arabic authors, asserts “that which is below is like that which is above & that which is above is like that which is below.” For Seligmann this identity is “the fundamental justification for magic.” Such interconnectedness also underlies symbolic and metaphorical associations of the sort critically important for seventeenth century iconography such as one sees in baroque title pages and emblem books and in the imagery of Metaphysical poetry.

The conception of the artist as demiurge underlies Seligmann’s fascination with magic, hardly the magic of parlor tricks or Satanism, but rather the linking of above and below, inside and outside, the painting in a frame and the world outside. It is not through the realism of superficial resemblance but rather through a symbolic system of correspondences that the artist mounts to the sublime. For Seligmann the Egyptian deity Thoth, a figure closely identified with Hermes Trismegistus, is an important prototype of the artist. In “Space” he refers to Thoth’s act of creation through laughter. Perhaps ripples of that cosmic laughter may be seen in the carnivalesque costumes and ribands so frequent in Seligmann’s oeuvre.

A Range of Visual Poetry

This survey was prepared for a program at the Seligmann Center December 3, 2017, part of a periodic series on the characteristic techniques of the last century’s avant-garde. Apart from making a few suggestions toward a definition of the genre, I mean only to highlight some significant works. Not only is my choice of poems somewhat arbitrary, I have allowed myself sketchy comments on each individually without attempting to construct an overarching theme. The piece is more notes for a class than an essay.


Visual poetry is that in which the appearance of the poem on the page constitutes a significant element in the work. All poetry relies on spatial arrangement if only by default. The word verse itself refers to the “turn” at the end of the poetic line by which much poetry is distinguished from prose. On many early artifacts considered to embody religious or magical power, the placement of words is essential. The artful use of space as an aesthetic strategy by poets became widespread in ancient Greece and has continued to the present.

Visual poetry has many varieties. Some poetry may be written conventionally while including an accompanying picture, such as in the emblem books popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries or Blake’s illustrations for Young or Dante. In Blake’s own handmade books the poems still use recognizable verses, but they are more subtly integrated with the illustrations, while Kenneth Patchen’s twentieth century painted poems further the integration of verbal and pictorial elements. The poem may even be read in the absence of the art work to which it relates as is the case in much ancient ekphrastic poetry.

On the other hand, the poets who initiated the flowering of visual poetry during the 1950s and originated the term “concrete poetry” prescribed austere and rigorous requirements. For some the ideal was a poem in unique form, without allusion or pictorial representation of any object, indeed without explicit reference to the world, which is to say “abstract.” Perhaps the most extreme development of this sort is composition using non-alphabetic symbols or idiosyncratic hieroglyphs and ideograms.

I have here excluded works with an illustration apart from the text while including those in which a recognizable image is formed by the words themselves, the most common type of visual poetry prior to the twentieth century. I include as well artful variation in typeface, while excluding the use of symbols other than letters in patterns. I do not consider the arrangement on the page of many free verse compositions such as some of E. E. Cummings or Charles Olson to be visual poetry under the assumption that their design is essentially less visual than a cue to reading.


Among the poems of the Greek Anthology are a number in which the word are arranged to resemble objects, a practice the Greeks called technopaignia, which might be literally translated “games of skill.” These include a piece attributed to Theokritos in the shape of pan pipes, an altar by Dosiadas, and an egg and hatchet by Besantinus. Under the name of Simmias of Rhodes are poems shaped like an egg, a hatchet, and wings.
One of the most widespread religious symbols in ancient Near Eastern culture is the labrys or double-bladed axe. The text of Simmias’ “Axe,” a dedicatory verse, indicates the close relationship between such poems and religious practice.

(Epeius of Phocis has given unto the man-goddess Athena, in requital of her doughty counsel, the axe with which he once overthrew the upstanding height of god-builded walls, in the day when with a fire-breath’d Doom he made ashes of the holy city of the Dardanids and thrust gold-broidered lords from their high seats, for all he was not numbered of the vanguard of the Achaeans, but drew off an obscure runnel from a clear shining fount. Aye, for all that, he is gone up now upon the road Homer made, thanks be unto thee, Pallas the pure, Pallas the wise. Thrice fortunate he on whom thou hast looked with very favour. This way happiness doth ever blow.)

Here the poem itself becomes the dedicated object, not only describing but in fact becoming an embodiment of the axe. The poem may well have been inscribed on an actual votive axe, recalling the one in the temple of Athena with which Epeius was said to have built the Trojan Horse.

For a considerable time after the fall of Rome, the practice of visual poetry was largely confined to the sacred object with which it had begun. For instance, the Ruthwell cross, carved in the 8th century but with the runic inscription added perhaps two hundred years later, is inscribed with a passage from the “Dream of the Rood” which complements the carved scenes.

ᛣᚱᛁᛋᛏ ᚹᚫᛋ ᚩᚾ ᚱᚩᛞᛁ ᚻᚹᛖᚦᚱᚨ / ᚦᛖᚱ ᚠᚢᛋᚨ ᚠᛠᚱᚱᚪᚾ ᛣᚹᚩᛗᚢ / ᚨᚦᚦᛁᛚᚨ ᛏᛁᛚ ᚪᚾᚢᛗ

Krist wæs on rodi. Hweþræ'/ þer fusæ fearran kwomu / æþþilæ til anum.

"Christ was on the cross. Yet / the brave came there from afar / to their lord."

Sure the worshippers felt as though the addition of the words not only encouraged meditation but also heightened the spiritual power of the cross just the addition of a slip of paper bearing a name of god brought the golem to life. The worshipper approaching the cross can feel Christ’s nearness as he reenacts the text.

The Renaissance brought an efflorescence of shape poetry called carmina figurata. The trend was encouraged by George Puttenham’s 1589 The Arte of English Poesie in which he mistakenly maintained that such “ocular proportion” was characteristic of Eastern courts. His “Column” in praise of Queen Elizabeth is to be read from the bottom up though the last line concludes with a useless period.

Is blisse with immortalitie.
Her trymest top of all ye see,
Garnish the crowne
Her iust renowne
Chapter and head,
Parts that maintain
And womanhead
Her mayden raigne
In{ }te{ }ri{ }tie :
In honour and
With ve{ }ri{ }tie
Her roundnes stand
Str|en|gthen the state.
By their increase
Without debate
Concord and peace
Of her sup{ }port,
They be the base
With stedfastnesse
Vertue and grace
Stay and comfort
Of Albions rest,
The sounde Pillar
And seene a farre
Is plainely exprest
Tall stately and strayt
By this nob{ }le pour{ }trayt.

Here the extraordinary form exalts the monarch with the stately and noble form of the column familiar from antiquity and serviceable as a metaphor for the support of the state.

During the seventeenth century George Herbert became perhaps the most popular composer of visual poems. Again, the devotional character of “The Altar” is deepened by its shape. The taste of the succeeding century is suggested by Addison’s condemnation of shape poems as in Spectator 62 in which he ridicules as “False Wit” the writing of “whole Sentences or Poems, cast into the Figures of Eggs, Axes, or Altars.”

In Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés the words are tossed across the page though with the greatest care. Still, the first major work of visual poetry that established the technique as a characteristic of the avant-garde was Apollinaire’s Calligrammes. The shape poems of this collection display extraordinary art and subtlety, fully exploiting the graphic form and employing considerable ambiguity and ellipsis. Apollinaire in his introduction says that “The Calligrammes are an idealisation of free verse poetry and typographical precision in an era when typography is reaching a brilliant end to its career, at the dawn of the new means of reproduction that are the cinema and the phonograph.” (Guillaume Apollinaire, in a letter to André Billy)

One of the most well-known and complex is the page which includes what may be regarded as three interrelated texts: “The Mandolin,” “The Carnation,” and “The Bamboo.” (Should the image here be inadequate, the reader should seek a better one online.)

“The Mandolin” “La Mandoline
Alternate titles indicated on the galleys are “Le Bamboo Parfumé,” then “Le Mystêre Odorant,” finally “Le Rêve.” The bamboo is surely an opium pipe. Stimulated by the drug, the poet reflects on the war. In his reveries the violence of the trenches of WWI become the musical tones of a mandolin and the wounds of battle a catalyst for truth. Reason puns on rai-son (ray of sound) and then the love object is added to the metaphorical chain. The shape of the musical instrument resembles the circling analogy. Hints are present of Symbolism’s fondness for indeterminate signifiers and Futurism’s fondness for violence, present as well in many avant-garde manifestoes. War is seen at the heart of the instrument the neck of which extends upward like a rifle barrel, but the suffering of conflict seems transmuted, an inevitable complement inextricably linked to art and love.

“The Carnation” “L’Œillat”
The odor of the carnation, upright and possessed of a certain grandeur in form, provides an emblem of beauty more persuasive because more sensual than the sounds of the mandolin. The poet moves here from metaphor to direct statement, asserting the supremacy of sensation and the confidence that in this way, through the sympathetic power of romantic love, the individual may attain wisdom. The plus sign indicating more was also a Futurist usage.

“The Bamboo” "Le Bamboo"
The chains of opium smoke signify deep thought. The letter os might mean the exclamation or au, while also suggesting the joints of the pipe. The use of déliées and lient is ambiguous, either “linking” in a fruitful logical way or binding in a limiting way. (See “Le Sang Noir de Pavots” for a dark view of the drug.)

In the middle of the twentieth century Augusto and Haroldo de Campos and Decio Pignatari founded the Noigandres group in Brazil in 1952. They established ties with Eugen Gomringer, who first used the term “concrete poetry” in in print in 1955. The most significant grouping of visual poets in modern times, their group became international, including the American Emmet Williams, the Scot Ian Hamilton Finlay, Germans Claus Bremer, Dieter Roth, and Franz Mon, Austrians Gerhart Rühm and Ernst Jandl, and the Swiss Daniel Spoerri.

The “Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry” by the Brazilians, the principal manifesto of the movement, was published in 1958. The “Plan” declares the end of “the historical cycle of verse (as formal-rhythmical unit)” now to be replaced by awareness of graphic space as structural agent. The Noigandres writers acknowledge Pound and Fenollosa (as well as Apollinaire and Eisenstein) as influences inspiring the possibility of “the ideogram method of composition based on direct-analogical, not logical-discursive juxtaposition of elements.” For them their art, though constituted of language,” is “nonverbal” while not giving up “word’s virtualities.” Their concrete poetry, they claim, represents “total responsibility before language” as well as “thorough realism.” They opposed “poetry of expression, subjective and hedonistic.”

Coca-cola is at once wildly popular in Latin America both as a beverage and as a t-short theme, but the company is also the most visible symbol of American capitalist domination. In Pignatari’s poem the ubiquitous advertising slogan “beba coca cola” decomposes through babe (a variant of bébé?), cola (tail or glue), and caco (or caca, i.e. shit) to cloaca. The final word is an anagram for Coca-cola. The piece is engage, a protest against American imperialism and consumerism.

Dick Higgins was a composer and printmaker as well as poet and a founder of the Fluxus group and Something Else Press. In his poem he plays with the line reported in a 1966 Scientific American article by Anthony Oettinger concerning computer generated language. Oettinger said that, using “Time flies like an arrow” as a pattern may lead to unintelligible English sentences. Discussing the complexity of a language in which, for instance “time" may be a noun or a verb or an adjective, “flies" may be noun or verb, etc., he then said, “Worse yet anything ruling out the nonexisting species of time flies will also rule out the identical but legitimate structure of ‘Fruit flies like a banana.’” The lines were quoted in magazines and science journalism and entered the popular consciousness as a joke, often attributed to Groucho Marx.

Since the text derives from a discussion of the gap between computer processing and human thought, Higgins is acting machine-like by using pre-written words, yet he presents them in an assertively novel form. The line of three es above and three is below creates a symmetry the formal balance of which forms the basis for a structural pattern of bipolar oppositions within the repeated subject-verb-prepositional phrase sentences: animate/inanimate, abstract/concrete, fly as verb/fly as noun, italics on/italics off.

Bob Cobbing, a central figure in the British Poetry Revival of the 60s and 70s, presents the reader with a composition in the shape of a sort of jack-o-lantern grin in which the word grin slides without warning into grim, flashes back to “gay green,” a sort of springtime cheer, and then into the more ominous “gray green,” “gangrene,” and “ganglia,” rather as one’s life experience may pass from pleasant to horrifying.

(Here, too, the reader may need to seek a better image of Hollander's "Swan and Shadow.")

John Hollander’s “Swan and Shadow,” while it is concrete in form, is conventional in content, sketching a picture of the bird and then tracing its receding reality in the lower half. The spaces between neck and body are functional on both halves with the center line signifying the present moment. With his virtuoso technical abilities, his considerable erudition, and his university positions, Hollander may be seen as fully integrating the techniques of visual poetry into the academy with his book Types of Shape in 1969. While his work is popular and often taught, the reader may judge whether acceptance has strengthened or weakened the impact of visual poetry.