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

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Aesthetics of Ambiguity in a Medieval Lyric

Fowles in the frith,
The fisses in the flood,
And I mon waxe wood
Much sorwe I walke with
For beste of bon and blood.

[Birds in the woods, fish in the stream, and I’m going mad. I walk with much sorrow for the best (or beast) of bone and blood.]

These brief five lines, found on a single page in a legal manuscript amid lists of names and dates, have attracted considerable attention in modern times, though their interpretation remains highly uncertain. The concision and elaborate sound-play of the piece have charmed readers even as experts cannot agree on the poem’s theme. The very mystery of the text may be itself admired, if the ambiguity be a sort that results not in lack of communication, but in the more precise communication of a more complex theme.

The unfolding of the sound pattern is a marvel of incantation, justifying the poem as a virtuoso melodic invention. The alliteration with the f-sound in the first line is repeated in the second to a resounding three-beat accentual rhythm. The third line turns instead to alliteration on w which is continued in the fourth and, in the end, all is swept away with three stressed words in the final line beginning with b.

This tight alliterative pattern, drawing on the Old English poetic tradition is combined with the ABBAB rhyme scheme to knit the whole into an almost hypnotic spell. The lovely music of the piece is self-sufficient, though many recordings exist due to the two-part musical notation accompanying the poem.

When these powerful phonic effects are linked to a semantic structure so delicately poised that an approximately equal number of critics have read the poem as an expression of romantic love and of Christian faith. The secular reading, which was dominant until the 1960s, treats the first two lines as the most conventional of medieval love poetry openings: a reverdie. Presumably the original form of the convention was equivalent to Tennyson line in “Locksley Hall”: “In the Spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” “Foweles in the frith” tropes on the expression by reversing that sympathy with nature. In this poem all nature is fertile and thriving, but the speaker is depressed, presumably due to his lover’s lack of complaisance. The hyperbolic compliment (“beste of bon and blood”), the woman’s coolness, and the lover’s consequent suffering are among the expected components of the sort of courtly love familiar from countless other texts. The phrase itself appears with very nearly meaning the same other love lyrics such as “The Fair Maid of Ribbesdale” and “Blow, northerne wind.”

Early scholars took the poem without question as an expression of romantic love. Yet in the 60s another school of thought arose to whom the lines required a Christian reading. [1] For them the speaker is an Everyman suffering, “mourning and weeping in the valley of tears” while nature chugs on, grandly unbothered. [2] But the religious interpreters do not agree on the poem’s end. One camp favors the Hebrew scriptural association and the other the Greek. [3] Among the former, the word “beste” in the last line is read as meaning “beast,” and the derangement of the speaker, so out of tune with the rest of nature, is the result of original sin. A variety of Biblical passages have been adduced in support of this interpretation. The word beast is indeed used the Psalms to indicate a fallible, sinning person [4] In another Psalm the thoughtless human is identified with the brute creation. [5] The poem’s final line, read in this manner, might be paraphrased as “ I live in pain because I am a physical being, afflicted with His sorrow is the sorrow of Genesis 3:17 to which postlapsarian mankind is universally subject. As a creature of blood and bone, he feels the prick of thorns and thistles. The “unfallen” birds and fish, unburdened by original sin, enjoy a sort of bliss the tortured, self-conscious human envies.

Thomas Moser found that there are sixteen mentions of birds and fish together in the Christian Bible, thirteen on the Old Testament and three in the New. The two, encapsulating as they do the worlds of the air and the sea, are first linked in the creation story which describes both as the sole creations of the fifth day. Several ancient Hebrew passages imply just the sort of gap between humanity and the rest of the animal world that maddens the speaker in “Foweles in the frith.” Psalm 8 praises God for the birds and fish as marvels of his handiwork, yet asks “what is man, that thou art mindful of him?” Similarly in Job beasts, birds, and fish are all called to astonish and awe, to humble the human, asking the devastating and unanswerable question: “what is man, that thou art mindful of him?” [6] The poem from this point of view delivers the same chastening reminder of the wretchedness of humankind in contrast to the brute creation.

Some, however, would maintain the romantic love reading of “beste of bon and blood,” but consider this as referring to Jesus Christ, the paragon. Christ is, after all, to them the Man of Sorrows foreseen by Isaiah. [7] Christ, too, was estranged from creation, enduring particular extreme suffering. As Matthew has it, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.” [8] The poem’s speaker is sympathetically identifying with Christ’s suffering as Christians seeking to follow the imitatio Christi have done throughout history.

Ambiguity need not be a result of sloppiness. (In fact, I suspect that it is a major rhetorical device in Chinese poetry; it certainly is in Elizabethan.) I have here mentioned only a few of the puns and ambiguities of this little lyric. The two or three readings of “Foweles in the frith” continue to contend because, far from excluding each other, each elaborates, enriches, and, in the end, reinforces the others. Lyric is typically an expression of affect. This poem is like a cameo engraved with a mythological scene in which the hero battles a monster. The enemy might be a woman who rejects the poet. For a person of a different sensibility, it would be the ineluctable nastiness of our lives with which the ego fights, or the contemplation of such undeserved suffering projected onto a divine (or human/divine) figure. The emotional truth remains the same. The vision of a rich a thriving nature constantly reproducing itself without existential woe is identical for each reading. The consequences of being made of bone and blood does not change. It is this underdetermination that gives the poem its magic.

1. "A Critical Approach to the Middle English Lyric”, College English 27 (February 1966).

2. From the Salve Regina.

3. Thomas Moser’s PMLA article vol. 102, no. 3, May 1987.

4. For instance in Psalm 73.

5. 49.

6. Job 12.

7. 53:3.

8. 8:20.

“Spoonful” and the Accretion of Meaning

The texts of the songs follow the essay.

While a rolling stone may indeed gather no moss, a poetic image can accumulate meaning with repeated usage in a way that adds semantic territory while it influences the interpretation of past poems. Both oral and written literary forms depend for their density of coded meaning on such accretion of meaning over time as identical or related images are repeatedly reused by one artist after another.

“Spoonful” is a central image in the lyric world of the blues. “All I Want Is A Spoonful” by Papa Charlie Jackson was recorded in 1925, and “Spoonful Blues” in 1929 by Charley Patton, placing it in the deepest Delta tradition; Mississippi John Hurt sang used the phrase in “Coffee Blues”; in 1960 Howlin’ Wolf sang Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” which then spread toward rock and roll in myriad versions, including those by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Cream, and the Grateful Dead, not to mention the group that called itself the Lovin’ Spoonful. Originally signifying simply “a small amount,” the term comes in time to suggest explosive sexuality, high quality, and a junkie’s fix.

In Jackson’s song the singer asks his love object for just a bit of loving, a spoonful. It is not necessary to “call or write,” her cooking is superfluous, love is his goal. He focuses on that moment of love-making, though it be snatched in passing: “Throw it out the window, I'll catch it ‘fore it falls.” The woman’s identity is secondary; in fact, “There ain’t no one woman got it all.” Through the entire lyric, it is the woman who gives the “spoonful,” that minimal dose of most satisfying love; the man can only plead. Here the phrase clearly emphasizes how little the persona is asking of her, and, accordingly, how churlish would be her refusal. The lady’s position, if Lucy Mae is an example, is equally undiscriminating: she will accept the singer or any handy “monkey man.” [1]

For “spoonful” the locus classicus must be Charlie Patton’s 1929 recording. In this eloquent and fragmented performance, the speaker again asks his beloved for a spoonful, saying that it is “all I want in this creation.” Yet here her response mirrors his need. Women themselves are “goin’ crazy, every day in their life,” looking for that spoonful. And the ante has increased so that disorder (like that of the song itself), violence, legal retribution, even death may follow the quest. Spoken interjections like “wanna fight!” “would you slap me? Yes I will!” and “I’d kill him” disrupt the melody. The spoonful has caused men to do life in prison. The meaning, originally “a little bit,” has become charged with a powerful sexual implication that threatens at every moment to explode. The original common ground of vehicle and tenor – small quantity – has vanished in irony. Now it is all the greater marvel that a mere spoonful of sexual desire could be so powerful.

When Mississippi John Hurt picked up the phrase in his “Coffee Blues,” he used the Maxwell House advertising phrase “good to the last drop” which had been introduced in 1917. [2] In Hurt’s song, this simply signifies the high and reliable quality of the coffee or loving, equally relished at the outset and the conclusion of the encounter. With his sweet faux naïf pose, Hurt no sooner introduces the advertising slogan than he identifies it with his beloved who would prepare coffee for him. Hurt’s charming lyrics, delivered with the easy-going lilt of his simple melodic lines, only touch on the disruptive potential of his theme. A preacher may lay his Bible down when tempted by a spoonful. When the persona’s beloved leaves for unknown reasons, he can only follow after and, speaking in a proper and polite manner (“please, ma'am”) ask like a tramp at the door for “just” a lovin’ spoonful. He concludes with praise of love, figured as a taste of Maxwell House coffee.

Working with this rich bed of earlier associations, Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” emphasizes the destructive potential of that little bit of love that constitutes the spoonful. “One little spoon” of “your precious love” is “good enough,” yet people “lie, “cry,” “die,” and “fight” about it. The repetitions of this simple ironic motif – so much can emerge from so little – at once marvel at human sexuality and fully participate within it. When asked, Dixon himself commented, “The idea of Spoonful was that it doesn't take a large quantity of anything to be good.”

From the time of the Folk Revival in the late 50s and the rock version of hip in the late 60s, the popularity of blues standards spread to white audiences. According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame “Spoonful” is one of the “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.”

New uses of the spoonful image arose among musicians and songwriters favoring the counter-cultural and the taboo. The old association with semen gained strength (Perhaps my own place in the structure of society is implied by the fact that I find this meaning valid, though secondary or tertiary, even in the old songs.) For the British critic Paul Oliver, the image refers to “sexual intercourse in a standing position.” [4] The use of spoonful to refer to a junkie’s spoon for cooking up his stuff is a natural extension of meaning for those whose greatest passion was not sexual. Though to Willie Dixon “People who think Spoonful was about heroin are mostly people with heroin ideas,” the image works. Dope and sex both offer the potential for bliss and for ruin. Life is full of disturbance, often over the smallest of things.

As with other powerful images, this explication could proceed, in the most outstanding cases, almost without limit, until an entire vision of reality is suggested. The songs here cited indicate some elements of the semantic field of “spoonful.” The charm of all metaphors is their open-endedness. As any two things have some points in common and others in which they differ, any combination of objects will form a metaphor, creating a fabulous multiplication of potential for meaning. The fact that each of the songs in the “spoonful” lineage moved and excited listeners indicates that each found precision in the underdetermined image that resonated with lived experience and aesthetic sense in a way that ordinary discourse does not attempt to do.

1. A monkey man in Ida Cox’ song is a country boy, interchangeable with many others, who could never make it in Chicago. Peg Leg Powell sings in a different song “When God made me he didn't make no monkey man.” On the other hand the Rolling Stones proclaim “Well I am just a monkey man/ I’m glad you are a monkey, monkey woman too, babe.”

2. I find no prior use of that phrase (though to “milk to the last drop,” a fine down-home image with a quite different meaning, did exist).

3. In I am the Blues: the Willie Dixon Story, 148.

4. Screening the Blues, 198-9.

All I Want Is a Spoonful (Papa Charlie Jackson)

I told you once, this makes twice
That's last dime, don't you call or write
'Cause all I want, honey babe, is just a spoonful

You can brown your gravy, fry your steak
Sweet mama, don't make no mistake
'Cause all I want, honey babe, is just a spoonful

Just as sure as the winter follows the fall
There ain't no one woman got it all
'Cause all I want, honey babe, is just a spoonful

Lucy Mae's a woman that you can't understand
Well she's lookin' for you or a monkey man
'Cause all I want, honey babe, is just a spoonful

Now, cool kind mama, says you needn't to stall
Throw it out the window, I'll catch it 'fore it falls
'Cause all I want, sweet mama, is just a spoonful

I got the blues so bad, I couldn't sleep last night
My cool kind mama want to fuss and fight
'Cause all I want, sweet mama, is just a spoonful

Now I'm so glad that the dog can't talk
If you [can, keep him/it/'er staked, save a morning walk]
'Cause all I want, sweet mama, is just a spoonful

Now if you don't believe that I can run mighty fast
Ask that man that run me last
'Cause all I want, honey babe, is just a spoonful

A Spoonful (Charley Patton )

(Spoken: I'm about to go to jail about this spoonful)

In all a spoon', 'bout that spoon'
The women goin' crazy, every day in their life 'bout

It's all I want, in this creation is a...
I go home (spoken: wanna fight! ) 'bout a...

Doctor's dyin' (way in Hot Springs! ) just 'bout a...
These women goin' crazy every day in their life 'bout

Would you kill a man dead? (spoken: yes, I will! ) just
'Bout a...
Oh babe, I'm a fool about my...

(Spoken: Don't take me long! ) to get my...
Hey baby, you know I need my...

It's mens on Parchman (done lifetime) just 'bout a...
Hey baby, (spoken: you know I ain't long) 'bout my...

It's all I want (spoken: honey, in this creation) is

I go to bed, get up and wanna fight 'bout a...
(Spoken: Look-y here, baby, would you slap me? Yes I
Will! ) just 'bout a...
Hey baby, (spoken: you know I'm a fool a-) 'bout my...

Would you kill a man? (spoken: Yes I would, you know
I'd kill him) just 'bout a...
Most every man (spoken: that you see is) fool 'bout

(Spoken: You know baby, I need) that ol'...
Hey baby, (spoken: I wanna hit the judge 'bout a) 'bout

(Spoken: Baby, you gonna quit me? Yeah honey! ) just
'Bout a...
It's all I want, baby, this creation is a...

(Spoken: look-y here, baby, I'm leavin' town! ) just
'Bout a...
Hey baby, (spoken: you know I need) that ol'...

(Spoken: Don't make me mad, baby! ) 'cause I want my...
Hey baby, I'm a fool 'bout that...

(Spoken: Look-y here, honey! ) I need that...
Most every man leaves without a...

Sundays' mean (spoken: I know they are) 'bout a...
Hey baby, (spoken: I'm sneakin' around here) and ain't
Got me no...
Oh, that spoon', hey baby, you know I need my

Coffee Blues (Mississipi John Hurt)

This is the 'Coffee Blues', I likes a certain brand Maxwell's House, it's good till the last drop Just like it says on the can, I used to have a girl Cookin' a good Maxwell House, she moved away Some said to Memphis and some said to Leland
But I found her, I wanted her to cook me Some good Maxwell's House, you understand? If I can get me just a spoonful of Maxwell's House Do me much good as two or three cups this other coffee
I've got to go to Memphis,
bring her back to Leland
I wanna see my baby
'bout a lovin' spoonful,
my lovin' spoonful
Well, I'm just got to have my lovin', I found her
Good mornin', baby,
how you do this mornin'?
Well, please, ma'am,
just a lovin' spoon,
just a lovin' spoonful
I declare, I got to have my lovin' spoonful
My baby packed her suitcase and she went away
I couldn't let her stay for my lovin',
my lovin' spoonful
Well, I'm just got to have my lovin'
Good mornin', baby, how you do this mornin'?
Well, please, ma'am, just a lovin' spoon,
just a lovin' spoonful I declare,
I got to have my lovin' spoonful
Well, the preacher in the pulpit,
jumpin' up and down
He laid his Bible down for his lovin'
in't Maxwell House all right?

Spoonful (Willie Dixon, sung also by Howlin’ Wolf and others)

It could be a spoonful of coffee
It could be a spoonful a-tea
But one little spoon
Of your precious love
Is good enough for me

Men lie about that spoonful
Some cry about that spoonful
Some die about that spoonful
Ev'rybody fight about a spoonful

That spoon, that spoon
That spoonful

It could be a spoonful a-water
To save you from the desert sand
But one spoon of lead
From my forty-five
Will save you from another man

Men lie-ii about that spoonful
Some cry-ii about that spoonful
Some die-ii about that spoonful
Ev'rybody fight about a spoonful

That spoon, that spoon
That spoonful
That spoon, that spoon
That spoonful

It could be a spoonful a-sugar
It could be a spoonful a-tea
But one little spoon
Of your precious love
Is good enough for me-ee

Men lie-ii about that spoonful
Some cry-ii about that spoonful
Some die-ii about that spoonful
Ev'rybody fight about a spoonful

That spoon, that spoon
That spoonful
A-that spoon, that spoon
That spoonful

That spoon, that spoon
That spoonful
That spoon, that spoon
That spoonful.

Some Poetry Reviews

1. These short bits were in Chronogram.

Georganna Millman, Set Theory, Finishing Line Press, $12.00.

Georganna Millman’s Set Theory proves less abstract than the title and the glyphs on the cover might suggest. In fact her poems quickly establish an elegiac confidential domestic tone (“I will tell you everything.”) that focuses on mortality most of all (“one misfire behind the eyes/ a migraine’s clutch rush of regret.”). Time is processed here through nature: “trapped fingerling trout” or a dead coyote in the snow. Her work is rooted in the region (with poems on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and Utsayantha) and in everyday life including connubial bliss (too little sung) “Slick rapture – I am full of anticipation.” From her Catskills window she sees “a shock of fresh blood” in a snowstorm whose flakes seem no less than “lovers in free-fall.”

Lee Gould, Weeds, Finishing Line Press, $12.00.

In title at least more democratic than Leaves of Grass, Lee Gould’s Weeds remains capable of a certain prophetic ambition. Though the author can indulge dreams and even whimsy, there is generally an edge to the fantasy (as in the screams of the female mountain lion in “The Basics” or the “Mermaid” that Goldie, who used to play “gin rummy with Uncle Harry” became). “Rope Burn” is incandescent with eroticism and “Routine Check-Up, Age 13” greets puberty with a vision of “skinny dipping every night/ in phosphorescent lakes.” But death is a more prominent theme in this collection: “We become at last food, God, for you.” The volume concludes with “Song of Songs,” in which, if death is not quite transcended by love, it is subdued for the moment.

Frank Boyer, Jumping Out of my Skin: Poems and Microfictions, ed, by William Wilson, The Doppelganger Press, $8.00

Jumping Out of my Skin preserves poems Frank Boyer wrote half a lifetime ago when his life was unsettled, as the title suggests, but he was in synch with much of America then, and many will understand the cross-country jaunts recalled here: “misty farms, each lit by a single bulb, spin by like asteroids.” Invoking Kerouac and Jimi Hendrix, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, he portrays the Southwest (“the Rio Grande/ glimpsed through rust-colored brush”) and a hallucinatory NYC (“subway steps slick with blood”) as he moves toward “a fate we cannot guess.” Romance is redemptive but elusive. At its best: “She touched his hand. Their wounds were healed.” But love can be more ambiguous: she “curls up around my heart/ digs in her claws,/ and makes herself at home.”

Steve Clorfeine, While I Was Dancing, Codhill Press, $18.00. (art by Christoph Zihlmann)

Steve Clorfeine’s While I Was Dancing is based on free-writing texts generated when the author and a partner practiced “moving and writing”: eyes closed, one would move while the other observed; then, both would write. Perhaps the most direct transcription of the process is the first poem in which the dance makes everything possible in a triumph of symbolic gesture: “Victory to fingertips/ (their willingness to fill the air).” The remaining poems range in reference from Buddha to Cracow and an old age home and in style from the lyric to the gnomic: “how we face each other/ how we face ourselves/ begin again.” The book includes a suite of neo-Expressionist etchings by Christoph Zihlmann that nicely complement the poems. May there be more such fruitful juxtapositions of words and visual art!

Fire Exit, Robert Kelly, Black Widow Press, $19.95

Bard professor Robert Kelly, author of sixty-some books, once wrote “Language is astrology indoors,” and Fire Exit, a novel-length group of linked lyrics, reads sometimes like conjuring or incantation. One poem says, “the words come in like crows to wake us,” and awakening may range from gnomic pronouncement to arresting image to exquisite enigma. The flexible three line stanzas are strewn over the pages like flower petals or constellations. Attentive and off-hand graceful, the language is redemptive. In a single poem he moves from subatomic particles to apocatastasis to erotic images to “scissor up the Visa card and rest in peace/death is the opposite of cash/the mortgage that you can pay off never.”

Winter Crows, Barry Sternlieb, Codhill Press, $16.00

The title of this winner of the 2008 Codhill Press Poetry Chapbook Competition might lead readers to think of Ted Hughes or perhaps Van Gogh, but in fact Barry Sternlieb’s crows appear neither as the metamorphosing mythic crow of the British poet nor as ominous birds over a dark wheatfield. Such a painting of crows can be a sublime masterpiece, but for Sternlieb there is revelation beyond art and the senses. He includes a few sweet erotic pieces, but he is attracted as well to the perfection of vacuity. For him the crows, even when “hounded” by wind in one poem, are an emblem of beauty’s survival.

The King, Patricia Wolff, W. W. Norton & Co., $24.95

In The King, a collection of poems on pregnancy and motherhood, Patricia Wolff avoids preconceptions and conventions and provides the reader with on-the-money sketches of maternal moods cast in focused colloquial language that takes, at times, surprising turns. Her chiseled language handles ugliness or anxiety with aplomb. Instead of sentimentality or neo-mythic goddess-worship, the reader finds the startling title “I am on drugs” in which the persona declares her “irresponsibility,” saying the coming child’s life (like our own) will be “a test.” In another piece Wolff says “having had children” is what Buddhists call suffering. That suffering, of course, is nothing other than life.

Hurricane Hymn, H. R. Stoneback, Codhill Press, $20.00.

With the first poem on the flooding of New Orleans, the reader is tossed into the hurricane’s maelstrom which in Stoneback’s rendering includes an unsettling variety of voices. His unashamedly ornate rhetoric runs a broad gamut of tone, rich with music and passion. Prior to joining the professoriat, he collaborated with Jerry Jeff Walker and played with Dylan at Gerde’s Folk City, and this background is evident not only in references to Fats Domino and Hank Williams, but in the poet’s highly accessible engagement. One poem’s title links the Fisher King with Delta Recon, and the language throughout runs smoothly from recondite to colloquial.

2. This has not yet been published.

Welcome to the Museum of Cattle, Jane Ormerod, Three Rooms Press: NYC, 2012. $15.00

Jane Ormerod’s new book from Three Rooms Press Welcome to the Museum of Cattle is an effervescent syphon of words, bubbling over with sound collisions, found phrases, imagist fragments, and urgent unanswerable questions. Anyone with a weakness for words and a fondness for seeing them knock into each other, releasing unexpected associations and emotions, would relish this museum. Its exhibits may not strike the visitor as orderly or predictable, but they regularly feature a truly disarming level of energy. The verses spread across the page like an uncontrollable spill, like fireworks with a mind of their own, like a stream of flood-water taking new territory, like a new science just being uncovered.

Language here is incantatory, self-supporting, fueled by some dynamo within to turn (as consciousness does) from one detail to another, leaving the forebrain always a bit behind in attempting to account for the gaps. Though she specializes in the discontinuous, Ormerod also regularly employs repetition to simultaneously familiarize and defamiliarize the phrase in a manner reminiscent of Gertrude Stein (and with the same fondness for simple diction and the concrete).

“Lying Sideways, Eyes Closed, Rain,” the opening poem, which might at first seem to be stream-of-consciousness, turns out to be more like bricolage or Snyder’s riprap, with one element placed next to another. One finds little compressed riffs within a line (“That man and her of him ago and long I do I do”), repeated motifs (such as the emphatic “Hup!” and “Joist!”. The diction ranges from children’s story (the melodic sounds of “There is a scarf for little horse. etc.”) to floating portmanteaus like “nosewipe pipesmoke” to questioning (“Where? Whence? Whence?”) Dramas unfold in the turning questions and exclamations, concluding in exhilaration as the author invites the reader to share a “tree frog moment.”

Indeed, jouissance emerges repeatedly like Zephyr in this stormy and ever-changing environment. In “Call Me a Cabernet Sauvignon,” neutral coded instructions (“STOP,” “YIELD,” “WET PAINT” are mixed with images of busy trade and low-key impressions (“Prettyprettypretty”), enthusiastic outbursts (“Fertility of travelers! Ranger Lynne!”), and indeterminate series: “Polytechnicals Moggies in limbo Hopscotching experts.” (For this last, it doesn’t even help to know, as Americans may not, that a moggie is a cat.) The piece moves, though, to offer in the end a magic hope: “Divulge the first color you remember./ Maybe we will then all become happy.”

In “The Second Rebecca” Ormerod evokes Maurier and Hitchcock’s nervousness, the vulnerability of ignorance, and the perverse impulses of the ego seeking a “perfect tree” and a “postcard perfect Monte Carlo” while finding only scattered impressions and questions. But she does lay claim on the gem-like name of supporting player Lumsden Hare which strikes the reader as clumsy and yet perfect, a poem in itself. Settling for such satisfaction, she can conclude by analogy “There is no shame in the faltering surprise of your life.”

The same haven in which lived experience is reclaimed by art is most dramatically proclaimed in “Breathless Around Roadworks,” which declares of our imperfect vision, in spite of a full recognition of the frustration of persona and reader alike, that “This may be the only face of human and irrepressible joy.”

“Or Indeed Any Alcohol” ends on a similar rising note, in a linnet’s song (has the bird wandered here from medieval lyric?) which triggers a rising crescendo of “release,” and the purge of clean-burning alcohol which one might imagine purging doubt.
In “The Young and Innocent Ride Again” identity is barely containable and each alternative seems as glorious as the next.

Are you gold, a drunk, a listener, a wanton bitch?
A crowbat, an orphan? Are you the law?
A large bee on the shoulder of your enemy? A prize hog’s tale?
Are you over a port barrel
That feels like a keg of dynamite?
Will you ride again?

Reading Welcome to the Museum of Cattle, I thought of Dadaist Richard Huelsenbeck’s volume of similarly exploded poetry Fantastic Prayers. For its reissue, Huelsenbeck responded to those who took his texts to be random, aimed primarily at the destruction of conventional norms of beauty. He meant, he said, to exercise “constructive will in the world.” This activity of art-making, he went on, “lends wings to the course of the stars despite all the fallen angels.”

Ormerod might shrink from such puffed language, as she does possess the ironic mirror of our belated age. In “Within This Progression, Warmth” she expresses her ambition with modest precision: “This is the few of the something somewhat better/ than the something not so much.” An allusion to an earlier bricoleuse Marianne Moore (“a wealth of fiddle”) precedes a wordlist with extraordinary ebullience (“ . . .dislocated shoulders, jerkins, jerseys/ kilts, mayonnaise, char girls, charming girls . . .”).

And, just as the reader is convinced that all tones have been included in the varied procession of the Museum’s poems, wonder of wonders, at the book’s end, one is surprised once more as a reverent silence descends and the space on the page, like the space beyond the page, is dedicated, as it would be even without these words, to Ultimate Reality: “God/God/God/Welcome to the Museum of Cattle.”

3. This appeared in Home Planet News.

The Potential for Poetry. Eric Greinke. Rockford (Michigan): Presa Press, 2011. $11.95

Theory and ideology are often derided as abstruse, artificial, and altogether too French, but in fact every writer, on the conscious level or beneath, works on the basis of a set of more or less coherent presuppositions, an aesthetic theory. Few artists issue manifestoes any longer, and most pay scant attention to their conceptual foundations, so, while theoretical speculation has flourished in universities in recent decades, it receives virtually no attention in “non-professional” literary circles. Eric Greinke is a rare example of a small press poet who has followed in the tradition of Sydney, Shelley, and Pound by addressing the question of what poetry is all about.

Greinke will be known to those familiar with the small press scene, including readers of HPN. He is the author of something like sixteen books, most recently Wild Strawberries and Traveling Music, including a Selected Poems volume in 2005. What is unusual is his work as a man of letters, publishing reviews, translations (of Rimbaud), and speculation about literature itself. The provocative pieces reprinted in The Potential for Poetry first appeared in little magazines (including this one), and they well deserve this second life in a collection.

Greinke discloses his general orientation clearly. As a Midwestern small press poet who pursued an MSW instead of literary studies in graduate school, he identifies with the avant-garde, the outsiders, and outlaws. Thus, in “The Small Press Movement,” he calls for mutual support rather than competition, an inclusivity he calls in another essay “The New Eclecticism.” The division appears as a class hierarchy in several essays, including his piece on the poet laureate in which he suggests that Donald Hall’s values, traditional and even conservative were perhaps “beaten into his head at Harvard” while Greinke, the rebel, “went to a state college.”

However that may be, for my money, Greinke gets a good deal right. His discussion of the competing claims in recent poetry of an “inner-directed” group -- Bly/ Dickinson/Yeats – and a more “outer-oriented” Berrigan/Whitman/Pound group is useful. I agree with his statement that the poetic text is distinguished by “compressed multi-levels of meaning.”

The title essay “The Potential for Poetry” is ambitious enough to address the purpose of poetry which for Greinke is to “expand consciousness,” through the discovery of “new ideas” in new arrangements of words. Though he does allow, almost parenthetically, for the value of art in simply transmitting received ideas, for him the Romantic goal of novelty is more significant. According to Greinke, the “primary purpose” of poetry is “exposing the unknown, forming alternate ways of perceiving our reality, and advancing human awareness.” He provides a varied list of possible techniques to “make it new,” many of which have been favorite gambits of the avant-garde for the last hundred years: rule-breaking in general, collaborations, multiple personae, and the like.

In search of such new insights, he pursues what he, in another passage, calls the “the ‘Aha’ of revelation or confirmation.” His attitude is unapologetic: “Poetry is subversive to rigid, stagnant ways of being.” “Why should poetry tell us what we already know? Prose already does that.” This and his surrealist assumptions lead him to praise “intuitive,” “sub-conscious,” and “unconscious” thinking which to him is “divergent.” (One might object that archetypes by definition cannot be individual, but rather are universally shared. Are the dreams of which Breton made so much in the first surrealist manifesto likely to admit the individual to a realm of idiosyncratic improvisatory genius or to a timeless collective of wise Jungian ancestors? Or is the difference only in the decoding?)

Greinke accepts literary value as inexplicable: “Taste is personal . . . One loves it and the other hates it. Is it the person or the song?” The question can, however, be productively investigated by using his own insight that literary value is constructed in the consumption of the work. According to his formulation, “A poem doesn’t happen on a page. The reader is the poet.” Thus the interaction can be analyzed in terms of the level of the reader’s competence and the richness of the writer’s exposition.

His test case (which he warns the readers is protected by a level or two of irony) using his own poem “Life” seeks to establish clear bases for the work’s value through traditional explication, but retreats eventually into a less convincing claim that the reader’s evaluation of his poems is dependent on agreement with his theme. “The poem is great, if you also believe that life is great.” He insists on this point: he is entitled, he says, to call the poem great “if I also have the right to see life as great.” So would any poems asserting the “greatness” of life be also “great”? Would a poem claiming life is not great necessarily fail? And he concludes by backing into mystery at the end: “[The poem is great] Or not. It depends on the reader as all poems ultimately do.”

At risk of being identified with the reactionary camp (though I, too, went to state schools, which I regarded then and now as among the nation’s best), I found some of Greinke’s statements careless. For instance, early poetry being oral, there can be no evidence for his assertion that it is the oldest art. It is absurd to say that prose “came as a product of printing.” (What of Herodotus, the Norse sagas, and Chuang Tzu?) He says that “upper crust poets rarely stand the test of time,” (Chaucer? Milton? Will Eliot fade?). It seems to me the idea of the artist as counter-cultural is hardly over two hundred years old. And the man tosses the accusation of fascism far too freely: a poetry Nazi is one who likes accessible verse or a teacher who doesn’t know about prose poetry. And if that weren’t sufficient, he calls these opponents “chicken” as well!
But I bother to quibble only because he has so much that is substantial to say. Every page set me to thinking and reacting. His ideas are clearly bound to his own practice, and yet he is capable of sufficient generalization to aim right at the heart of literature. What are we doing and why? He has come up with his own answers based on a lifetime in the trenches of the art and his testimony is valuable, if not the last word.

In the interest on continuing the exchange of views, and really as a salute to Greinke and an invitation to others to contribute in future, let me set down a few of my own assumptions here. Poetry and other art use the most densely meaningful of codes; subjectivities are all we have of truth, and poetry uses figures of speech and thought to deliver them more precisely than any other verbal technology. Poetry can express an entire worldview (and, for my money, upsetting and affirming expectations are equally important, indeed complementary functions). Among the ends of the aesthetic text as opposed to the non-aesthetic (a more useful distinction than poetry and prose) are pleasure, investigation of the mysteries, exploitation of ambiguity, generation of new ideas and expressions, foregrounding of the irrational, the intuitive, the appetitive, specifically all the subconscious drives to their true place in the total picture of human consciousness.

Can poetry instruct? Only aesthetically, in suggesting that certain stances toward the facts of existence become us better than others. It would take divination to bring one closer to Truth, and the words of poets are the most accurate oracles to which most moderns have access. If art is play with style, surely Greinke is correct when he says “Anything goes . . .The real issue is how well a thing goes.” To evaluate how well it goes, one must see how much happens, and at what psychic depth when people consume the work.

4. This also appeared in Home Planet News.

Eros Descending. Edward Butscher. Amagansett: Amagansett Press, 2010. $15.

Poetry is distinguished from other discourses by its ability to deal with mysteries, things like love, death, and Ultimate Reality. For these topics which can never be “emptied out,” art has been the investigative medium from the earliest times. Who, after all, seeking knowledge of death, would consult a medical book, or look into psychology research to learn about love, or turn to a theologian for final questions? Edward Butscher, in his valedictory collection Eros Descending, addresses these themes (especially the first two) head on with eyes wide open in sinewy, musical, clear-imaged poetry.

These poems are death’s jest-book done anew interlarded with favorite sites from the Kama Sutra. Like the old Greeks he laments “flesh knobbed by cancer,” and finally “the dry turd of my own death” while celebrating art, the flesh, memory, and the ephemeral delights that remain. The old man’s theme of “Dust to Dust” (the title of a piece in the book’s center), in placed among reminiscences of early sexual experiences, visions of “women scudding home in melon/swells and escalating mini skirts,” and a delightful “Ode to Cunnilingus.” Those seeking a cosmic connection may or may not think they have found it when Butscher likens the big bang that started it all to “a sailor’s itch,” a “scab divine,” a back-room fuck that “triggered the first dung-fall/of grace into lesser beauty.”

Butscher, who holds a Ph. D. and wrote significant critical books on Sylvia Plath and Conrad Aiken (but spent most of his career teaching in New York City high schools) brings a high erudition to his play of signifiers. He is willing to include notes and tags from Whitman, Wallace Stevens, and – bless him! – Catullus and Ovid, and his verse is dense and deeply figured. Highly conscious of melody, Butscher is particularly adept at managing assonance and alliteration. With his concentration on the transformations of birth and death and melody, he can sound like Dylan Thomas:

No basket baby ever cried in its crab
Arms or fled with wind-wailing seeds
From their reluctant release

Learned data mixes with memory flashes and bits from old daily newspapers in the author’s notes to his poems which fill, in fact, the last third of the volume. There is some self-indulgence, perhaps, in the divagations of this discursive prose. The author gives permission for the reader to skip the section, but I enjoyed it, not so much as explication of the texts but as a series of new if dependent works. Still, one’s reading of certain poems is enriched by this miscellaneous material, a mélange of depictions of family members, celebrities of the past, evocation of other writers, some of whom, such as Simon Perchik and fellow schoolteacher David Ignatow, the author knew, and a variety of other information. Apart from literary links and anecdotes about Butscher’s aunties, the notes always provide a background wash for the work’s themes: stories of brutal poaching, a Turkish earthquake, or a suicide, for instance, resonating with the theme of thanatoskelly.

Admitting that an erotic reverie may end in farts and the “Rime on the Ancient Lecher” can only be bathetic (“Wetness, wetness everywhere”), love still survives in this volume, though it may manifest in a poem or a dream:

Death’s anecdote
The Tahiti dream
Is the sole dose of god aging allows.

Even the fantasy image alone still evokes reaction from his “half-limp penis as it rises in adolescent glee.” Thus in imagination one may obtain the grace of the dead boy who had (in a poem at any rate) “picked his nose/ and felt pure as a flute.” At that moment “a Grecian urn cradles love’s ashes” and the “sudden green upsurge” can console itself and live on to further generations in the face of mortality.

Poetry in general is the thickest semiotic form —the most meaning per signifier, and Butscher is a master of compression, using poetry’s toolbox to delineate ambiguities and contradictions, including that central play between life and sex and love and the world on the one hand and illness, aging, decay, and death on the other. He ties the dialectic knot tightly.

we cannot comb
old screams from her skull
or escape the adhesive lair
between her scissor thighs


I am enough of an urbanite to be struck as though with a spark of grace when I suddenly see a deer. They enjoy browsing in my ill-trimmed yard, bringing their young, lounging at rest and excreting in such comfort that they depart only reluctantly even when people approach. For years, they considered my garden, with its four-foot fence, unattainable. This year they realized it was not. They seem to be entirely at ease here in town, though it is hunting season out in the countryside.

With the sight of a deer in the yard, the householder understands a bit of the startling vision of St. Eustace: Christ between the stag’s horns, a sight so compelling it was assigned to St. Hubert as well, as though a single saint would be insufficient. St. Giles was sustained by the milk of his deer companion until a king intruded and injured the holy man while aiming at the animal, making Giles a patron of cripples.

Other traditions, too, scent generous sanctity when deer are near. In Islam, the 13th century holy man Geyiklü Baba, “Father Deer.” lived with his deer in the mountain forests of Bursa and gave hind’s milk to a colleague, and in the Þiðrekssaga, Sigurd is nursed by a doe. The common thread is selflessness, the same theme of those Jataka stories of when the Buddha appeared in the form of a deer. In one story he is a glorious deer who saves a man from drowning. The man later betrays the Buddha to a deer-hunting king who turns his weapon the traitor when he finds how the deer was tracked, and the Buddha again intervenes, offering to die in his place. The beginning and end of morality, the Buddha says, is compassion for all creatures. With a touching symmetry, in another narrative the Buddha-deer’s mate intervenes, offering her life for his when a hunter threatens him. [1]

Though all natural objects, studied with sufficient focus, might lead to consideration of Ultimate Reality, deer possess a coy beauty charming enough to attract more than their share of attention. Who can forget the eloquence of the Song of Songs: “My beloved is like a roe or a young hart: behold, he standeth behind our wall, he looketh forth at the windows, shewing himself through the lattice.” [2] (Surely it would have been likely the female concealing herself behind the mashrabiya; one thinks of medieval love stories such as Palamon and Arcite glimpsing the lovely Emily far below quite unknown to her.) The erotic associations of the deer are also used to describe the woman, as in Proverbs: “Let her be as the loving hind and pleasant roe; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times; and be thou ravished always with her love.” [3]

The fact is that deer carry a rich luxurious sensuality. They move with a sinuous liquid smoothness; their silence seems to speak of self-possession; those cervine eyes strike the observer as deep and sensitive. Their purposeful intentionality is buffered by a becoming hesitance, as though they are constantly aware of the provisional character of things. Horace compares the frisson of a fawn’s fear to that of erotic anticipation. [4]

Yet the animal’s vulnerable vitality is susceptible images of death as well as love. I once heard a recording of an African-American funeral service in which the preacher figured the deceased’s soul as a deer in flight. The deer is the vehicle of a sense of the mysterium tremendum. The sensitive soul, panicked and dashing through the woods, is pursued by dogs and hunters. One might expect that such hostile forces would represent the devil or the difficulties of life, but in this sermon they are instead the individual’s doctors, friends, and relatives, all trying to catch and detain the departing soul as it flees toward freedom. The pursuers eventually force the deer to the Mississippi River, the American manifestation of the Jordan, into which it plunges to escape. “All right, when the dogs get there where he was standin’, an’ they look there an’ see that water. An’ finally some of them will plunge in an’ swim out in the river a while barking, but they get to the place where there’s no scent, an’ they turn an come back to the bank. . . he’s got through, he’s got through the line. An’ he’s crossed that river.” Or, in the words of the Heart Sutra, Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone far beyond! enlightenment hail! "Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!"

1. The first story, known as the Golden Deer or the Ruru Deer, appears in the Pali Canon (as the Ruru Jataka, or Jataka 482) and in the Jatakamala of Arya Sura. The second is “The Two Deer” or Suvannamiga Jataka, Jataka 359.

2. II, 9.

3. V, 19.

4. Odes I, 23.

5. From a classroom handout distributed by the folklorist Harry Oster. I do not know if it was ever published. Long before I studied under him at the University of Iowa in the early 70s, I had heard his beautiful field recordings issued on his Folk Lyric label.

Trollope's Appeal

Traveling, I find myself indulging again in Trollope. Such a habit can last a lifetime. The man was prodigiously prolific, and most of his work occupies a reasonable plateau of quality. (Truth be told, his very best is little better than his worst.) As a popular novelist, his political views, conservative enough to be properly termed reactionary, were yet purged of unpleasantness apart from the wickedness of certain people who are unlike you or me. Decorated then with the mostly amiable eccentricities of us all, and even more with ladies both lovely and virtuous, his work confirmed the assumptions of a mainstream audience of middle and upper class readers. And I venture to say that he remains so reassuring today because of the same utter conviction of the basic rightness of things.

He is not so much a real partisan of the traditional, land-based England of old as he is given to nostalgia for it. A descendent of the eighteenth-century man of sensibility, he relishes a sweet, sad, “noble” feeling, though he is himself bourgeois and his heroes must be “manly,” however tender their relations to women, children, and the degraded poor. In Doctor Thorne, the narrator interjects a passionate claim that the nation is not fundamentally commercial, that trade cannot be a matter for pride or even real excellence (12-13) Rather, he celebrates an explicitly “feudal” system in which the landed aristocracy can be trusted to be sufficiently high-minded to rule in the interests of all. At the same time, he satirizes the de Courcys, recognizing every absurdity of a hereditary gentry.

In Trollope one encounters complete a small, self-contained world, all the more perfect for its provincialism. Things come right in the end, though a weak character or two may be sacrificed to sentiment; the good are blessed and the vicious ruined. All received ideas are accepted and reinforced. A fellow like Doctor Thorne, though he may display excessive pride or obduracy, has a heart of gold, so he must prosper in the end. Part of the Doctor’s worth is that he possesses not only ethical integrity but also a belief in family and descent. Indeed, without this loyalty to a class to which he has only a tenuous claim, he would not seem quite moral in the world of the novel.

Similarly, though Mary is a bastard, a status which has only recently lost its obloquy, she is also related to the house of Ullathorne and thus enabled to be refined and womanly. It is curious, and likely a reason Trollope, who defended psychological rather than plot-driven novels, himself did not care for this book, is that the narrative device of Mary’s inheritance, suggested by his brother, though it is held suspended for six hundred pages, easily guessed by the reader from the start. Mary is so nice; she must win out and marry joyfully in the end.

As few of us, his readers, find ourselves at the top of the social pyramid, Trollope makes good fun of aristocrats. He may support a sort of feudal paternalism, but he satirizes its representatives regularly. The Duke of Omnium is such a very lofty nabob that he is treated at a distance, but the de Courcys are consistent figures of fun. Still, everyone’s worth is realized by their proper playing of a social role.

Trollope’s treatment of his transgressive characters, those whose actions the reader can not applaud, those that go beyond idiosyncrasy, silliness, or a bit too much of a good thing, indicate the dangers of violating social norms.
Scatcherd is the prime example of someone who has wandered from his place in the social structure. This upstart capitalist, having left his proper station, finds himself suffering. The uncouth tradesman, who represents the upward mobility possible in capitalism, is an errant alcoholic; in fact, his ascent to wealth and international stature is rather incredible, given his youth as a mason and a convict and his all-but-uninterrupted drunkenness. His unlikely success is marred not only by his own pathological drinking but also by a no-good son who shares none of his virtues while magnifying his every vice. Scatcherd himself reflects that he would have been more blessed had he remained a stonemason. As it is, he gains immense wealth only to have it revert to the local embarrassed squire who can, of course, make much better use of it. His wife gracefully retires from Boxall Hill, knowing that she never really belonged there.

If the reprehensible tycoon is the book’s primary illustration of the frightful monstrosity of people’s rising above their stations, he has his junior partner in Moffatt. This low-born capitalist acts as a blackguard in jilting Augusta. His advocacy of extending the franchise and admitting Jews to Parliament is portrayed as disreputable vote-pandering as well as making him a “muff.” (207)

In a turn typical of Trollope’s middle-class partisanship for the wealthy, Amelia finds Mortimer Gazebee altogether too low-born for Augusta to consider as a husband, and Augusta herself admits that such an alliance would be “derogatory.” (496). They consider nothing but class in their calculations and pose the frightening question: “If we were to act that way, what would the world come to?” she asks. When Amelia herself violates the class barrier by marrying the affluent attorney, this turn exposes the hypocrisy of the aristocracy without vitiating Amelia’s point. It is, after all, her failure to accept such a marriage. While well-born, she must be less than altogether noble.

At times Trollope’s social ideal seems to veer backward even further than feudalism. Scatcherd’s murder of Henry Thorpe (who had seduced his sister) is all but approved by the narrator and by the authorities. As a more civilized citizen of higher rank (semi-civilized at any rate) Frank takes similar action against Moffat who has jilted his sister (but without having had sex with her) by horse-whipping him outside his club. Moffat, of course, being a bounder, folds without resistance, and the police, though they take Frank into custody, soon realize that he was doing what they consider the right thing. The proper social order, it seems, must be maintained by individuals taking “manly” action, ignoring the police, courts, and laws.

Trollope opposes the modern wholesale, including science and technology. He often directly addresses the presumably bourgeois reader but, at a critical moment, he enlists an ostler as spokesman. This character, a sort of Victorian British Stepin Fetchit, whose quaint deficiencies are evident in his comic dialect and his lameness, remembers most fondly the old “duik” and doochess” and laments the loss of importance of the feudal seat, commenting, “the money did fly in them days!” (200) as though his sort would be much better off were it not for social progress.

In the end it may be Trollope’s conservatism more than his great love for humanity that makes the work warm and comforting even to the more misanthropic. All literature both affirms and questions, reinforces and challenges our received ideas. While some works tend toward the critical side of the continuum, others, in particular popular works like Trollope, tend toward the affirmative, pleasing the reader with the sense that his beliefs are correct and the world is a basically benign place where things run on as best they may. People in Trollope are rarely troubled about their values or decisions. They may be discomfited by circumstance or by narrow-minded antagonists, but they muddle on in a fundamentally lovable manner that makes a narrative world like that of Doctor Thorne a singularly comfortable place to linger.

Page numbers refer to the Oxford World's Classics paperback edition.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Three Horatian Odes

Horace is the great technician of Latin poetry. The critic can always examine more closely and find more cunning and subtlety. Like the Chinese, so humane and yet so sophisticated. Yet his excellence does not transfer well to twenty-first century America. The pacing, word order, and figures of speech appeal to tastes that exist today only if consciously cultivated. The allusions snag readers into footnotes rather than delighting them. Still, with my poor Latin, I have tried to do a few.

Horace lives, like all of us, in sadness and fear. The intimate conviction of art protects him against such assaults as history, in the person of Tiridates, the sometime tyrant who eventually took refuge under Augustus, might offer. His immunity is the result of his aesthetic control which produces grace and clarity. This offering of beauty is conflated with the love (or friendship) between the persona and Lamia. An amicus of the muse, he can order up a garland celebrating the human relation enjoys, and this fructifying creative motive inspires the importation of new meters which are presented not as a refinement for aesthetes but as running down with the energy of “mountain creeks.”

Odes I, 26

Oh, I'm the muses' friend. Let wild winds blow
my sadness and my fear to Crete's far side.
I’m cool, whatever people fear from northern kings
of icy lands. Let Tiridates shake.

And let the one who loves the clearest stream,
let the Pierian weave sun-
grown blossoms, weave a crown for my dear friend,
Lamia, weave it, muse, and now!

Without you all my honors just stand mute.
I’ll take my Lesbian lyre and sing new tunes.
Let poetry run down like mountain creeks!
I weave a crown of flowered words for him.

Though Horace’ most famous tag occurs in the following piece, familiarity has not emptied the words of their Epicurean poise. It’s Ram Dass’ “Be Here Now” but lacking the portentous machinery. For Horace there’s just the coastal landscape and the wine and his friend’s company. He has found it vain to entertain himself with supernatural prophecy or other illusion. Just to pass the time is surely enough.

Odes I, 11

Don’t ask, Leukonoe, it is taboo to know
what fate I’ve got and what’s awaiting you.
Forget the Tarot reader. It is best to tough
it out. Know Jupiter may give us many years
or this may be the last we see the Tuscan sea
come break against the rocks. Be wise; strain wine;
don’t hold great long-term hopes. We talk and jealous time
runs on. Just seize this day, think nothing of the next.

This last is in a similar vein, but finished off with a marvelous series of images suggesting the joys of flirtatious dalliance. I've been so reckless as to introduce rhyme here.

Odes I, 9.

Look! There Soracte stands topped with deep snow,
the hard-put trees in agony to hold it all.
The penetrating frost has frozen firm,
each river’s resting deep in ice’s thrall.

Dispel the cold and pile the logs up high
in your warm hearth and pour my favorite drug,
pour it high, that wine that’s aged four years,
o, party-master, from the Sabine jug.

Leave all else to the gods. As soon as they
have quieted -- the winds now fighting hard
with high-tossed seas -- the cypress trees won’t shake
nor will the ancient ashes in the yard.

O, don’t ask what tomorrow may produce.
Every day’s an answer to a prayer.
Don’t neglect when you have youth to dance,
and don’t think you’re too good for love affairs

As long as you’re still green, not peevish grey,
then think of nothing else in dusky light
but rendezvous around the fields and squares
and whispers soft as the approaching night.

Now too’s the time for her sweet laugh to give
a girl away in her dark hiding spot.
She makes a show, objecting when a tease
will grab her ring or bracelet that she’s got.


I just heard an eighteen-time Grammy winner perform. Despite his immense popularity, due to the structures of American cultural life, it is very unlikely that the reader of this essay would recognize his name: Jimmy Sturr. His band plays polka music, which, until recently enjoyed its own Grammy category (doubtless reflecting significant sales). Polka has now been folded in to ethnic music (reflecting a decline), so he must compete with African and Indian musicians.

Lamentable or inevitable, the fact is that the number of polka fans who read (literary) poetry is as small as that of litterateurs who listen (and dance) to music like Sturr’s. The cultural divide is not imaginary. When I was a young lad, newly interested in classical music, and asked if I might resume piano lessons, my Czech Uncle Bill told me a bit confidentially, as though he were letting me know my fly was open, that “Girls study piano, Bill. If you really want to play music, it would be just fine if you took up accordion.” It was, of course, of polkas that he was thinking.

A consumer of a broad variety of music from Tibetan to African pop, I eventually (through Jimmy Rodgers and the Carter family) gained some appreciation for country music, but polkas continued to strike me as mindless and shallow in spite of polka-based works by Smetana, Strauss, and even Stravinsky.

Unlike such genres as blues and country music, which engage issues like alcohol with gravity as well as relish, to the polka dancer the barrel of beer is an unambiguous blessing: “Roll out the barrel, we’ll have a barrel of fun.” Of this world the same song testifies, “Only happy faces bloom there/ And there's never any room there/ For a worry or a gloom there.” At Sturr’s concert, his aides redefined red plastic beer cups as fetish objects, distributing them before singing a paean to “my red Solo cup.”

In spite of the alcohol, in this happy land, there is no infidelity. Love songs do exist, but unlike most of the world’s poetry on the theme, love in Polkaland is uncomplicated and enthusiastic as everything else. Radio shows featuring the genre are always sending out fortieth and fiftieth anniversary greetings to listeners to whom the very notion of an affair would be unmentionable (though not in every case undoable). Likewise, polka fans tend to be religious and patriotic to a fault.

All received ideas are not only welcome; they are celebrated with manic intensity. Doubtless reassuring to an audience uneasy with modern uncertainties, the constant fast tempos allow no second thoughts. The wall of sound from the horn section is insistent, uncompromising. Indeed, the dancers at Sturr’s appearance appeared without delay, charmed by that powerful sound. They began hop-stepping rapidly about the floor, doing the half-step from which some would trace the name of the dance. Virtually all of retirement age, they skipped about the floor and were always ready to go again when the next number started up. It was as though I stood in the middle of the abandon of a festive Breughel scene. Where else could the energy and devotion to each other of these happy couples find expression?

These polka people need not be Polish or Czech. Sturr sings in no Slavic tongue, and he is liable to stray from polka proper into country and popular material that shares its infectious, almost mindless beat and ideological conservatism. One recognized genre of American polka music is in fact the Native American Papago-Pima “chicken scratch” music. The urban factory worker and the small farmer may share with the native American a sense that the world is passing them by, that they have little control over the terms of their daily life, and that, as a result, the best strategy is to make one’s way doggedly through the week determined to have a good time on Saturday night. Once the band strikes up a tune, the greatest social problem is who stole the kischka.

Sturr works the crowd infecting others with his wild exuberance. Yet he is a celebrity with whom the audience feels a connection. He steps among them, shaking hands and greeting people. He mentions many individuals known to the local crowd. Small and slim, with styled hair, he calls for “hallelujahs” from his people as though he were at a Pentecostal meeting (and, indeed, the last half century has seen a good many polka masses).

They certainly have no need of the approbation of the aging half-Czech critic who cannot do the dance, but only stands by the sidelines, albeit with one foot tapping.

Notes on Recent Reading 13 [Mirabai, Wood, Trocchi]

Poems [Mirabai]

Mira is one of the great Rajasthani poets in the Vaishnava bhakti or devotional tradition called Sant, a lifelong lover of Krishna who was moved to dance before the image of her lord like the tumbler of our lady of whom Gautier de Coinci tells. Her poems provide yet another example of the courtly adaptation of love poetry for the service of the divine. No other figure in the numerous pantheon of Hinduism has attracted more such love than Krishna.

Reading Mira, I think of the altogether proper wife of an engineering professor I once knew who startled me at a festival when she and the other Indian ladies, a group of sophisticated women, physicians and intellectuals for the most part, danced in the role of the gopis. These ordinarily demure ladies moved their bodies with a sort of abandon that, holy or unholy, was striking indeed.

I read The Devotional Poems of Mirabai, translated by A. J. Alston. The interested reader will find related material in Archer’s book The Loves of Krishna, and examples of quite marvelous popular lyrics expressing similar sentiments in the renditions of the songs of the Bauls of Bengal by Denise Levertov (with Edward C. Dimock) or those of Deben Bhattacharya.

Heavenly Discourses [Charles Erskine Scott Wood]

Wood, most improbably, fought Chief Joseph in the 1870s and then recorded (or perhaps composed -- the degree to which it is an accurate transcription is unknown) the celebrated surrender speech. The men remained friends. Wood became an activist lawyer, defending labor unions and clients such as Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger.

These dialogues in heaven are fanciful polemics written with the Masses in mind. The cast includes God, a number of past worthies such as Christ, Confucius, and Voltaire, more recent exemplars such as Wood’s friend Mark Twain mixing it up with villains like censor Anthony Comstock, evangelist Billy Sunday, and a notably priggish St. Paul.
The mission of the Masses mingled fierce anti-war propaganda (which led to the publication’s two trials) with first-rate labor reportage, but its heart remained in bohemia. It was, after all, a Greenwich Village collective, and Woods’ tone is generally gay and even a bit supercilious. One gets the impression from Wood that the enemy is less a group of murderous and selfish plutocrats than a bunch of philistines who are simply silly.

Cain’s Book [Trocchi]

To the history of addicts’ literature that runs from De Quincey through Burroughs and on to the Velvet Underground, Trocchi adds a mid-sixties take in which Beckett, Godot, and Kafka lurk always about the margins. A belated prophet of the existential dilemma, Trocchi regards himself as an imposter in his own identity. (70) Seeking a mode of negotiating life in the mid-twentieth century, Trocchi reduces the formula of survival to its barest terms. In this book, heroin is a reasonable resort for the sensitive, and the details of addiction provide salient data about life in these bodies.

It’s almost quaint, now, the way that Manhattan generated this view of the junkie as hero to the applause of many who could never stomach a moment’s first-person experience of such lives. Though he recognizes all the selfish dodges of his associates, to Trocchi the addict has a kind of nobility. He goes on about the travails of addiction, suggesting that his is an unfairly put-upon class. He is the Romantic artist, putting himself at risk for the good of those lesser souls, his readers.

Heroin provides a dramatic yet tidy confession, offering little in the way of real self-revelation. But for Trocchi it is plenty. “For a long time now I have felt that writing which is not ostensibly self-conscious is in a vital way inauthentic for our time.” (59) His nausea (of the variety familiar from Sartre) stimulates his creativity: “I found dissent, sedition, personal risk. And there I learned to explore and modify my great contempt.” (220)

Still Biking

It’s getting cool out there on the trail – middle thirties when I rode a few days last week. Today was balmier (in the fifties) and I reflected again about the peculiar phenomenon of my hour and a half a day biking habit. In spite of a lifelong prejudice against physical culture, this morning found this aging aesthete still at it. Like all unlikely anomalies, the dissonance demands further investigation.

The obvious motives remain valid, of course: first of all, the cardio-vascular benefit which, while it will not beat the reaper, may keep him at bay a while. In addition the biker is allowed the pleasures of an extra thousand calories at table. But surely such rational explanations may cover less straightforward ends.

I have come to think that I probably do it – such is human perversity – simply because it is difficult. A moment’s reflection suggested that pursuing such ambitions has been a pattern of my life.

Contrary to the career-minded youth who welcome our universities' transformation into vocational schools, I pursued studies of no value in the marketplace: poetry, dead languages, comparative literature, and literary theory. As a graduate student, I declined to teach essay-writing, declaring that I was a critic and not a pedagogue, though prudent elders cautioned that a teacher of expository writing is more marketable. As a student, I gave my first attention to my least “useful” subject, Classical Greek, though I had no prospect of teaching it, and it played no role in my dissertation.

When I took the grand tour of Europe, I simply flew over without reservations or itinerary and proceeded to seek the very cheapest accommodations and cuisine, confident that this policy would guarantee the richest experience. Whether that expectation was true or not, it complicated the traveler’s task immeasurably.

Similarly, living at home on a few thousand a year meant all sorts of making-do, dodges and makeshifts to get by, all of which would have been unnecessary had I taken the high road to the bourgeoisie which was readily available (at least at first).
I have regularly worked in situations that were unpaid or underpaid: VISTA volunteer, free-lance writer, occasional translator, substitute teacher, adjunct professor, chair of several non-profit (or, as I sometimes like to say, “anti-profit”) organizations. My income, well below the government’s official poverty line, for years created barriers between me and my less scrupulous associates. Integrity was closely bound with penury in my mind, precisely because living without money was challenging enough to be an ordeal, a test of ability. Whatever one thinks of such an attitude, and I realize it is daft to many, it is no easy matter to practice. We always made all food from scratch, buying only basic materials, and yet we ate like luxurious gourmets every day. I drove ancient cars so debilitated that one could hardly know upon setting out whether the vehicle would safely return to its home in a few hours. I regarded the difficulties with the same proud relish sometimes evident in an expatriate in the Nigerian bush explaining his dealings with the bureaucracy or a New Yorker talking about how he found his apartment.

My politics have always been impossibilist in the sense in which that term was used at the 1900 Paris Congress of the Second International. To me structural change is the precondition of meaningful reform. Though I have not been as rigorous in recent years about maintaining an exclusively extra-parliamentary opposition, I have never seen the victory of a candidate I fully support and I never expect to.

Surely the pattern of making things hard for myself could arise from ego as well as from the cultivation of arete. There may be some allure in the ability to refer casually to knowing ancient Greek or propelling myself twenty-two miles a day, as I was pleased to do (the latter boast, that is) when a workman arrived just as I breezed in the driveway. Braggadocio, of course, was considered salutary by the Greeks, an inspiration of excellence. For Aristotle the same word meant both ego-satisfaction and magnanimity, a great-heartedness in generosity. Pride for him was “crown of the virtues” as it encourages all the others. (Nicomachean Ethics 4,3) Nietzsche need not have fulminated against Christian humility; few Christians, indeed, really reject pride with the author of Proverbs 11:2: “When pride cometh, then cometh shame: but with the lowly is wisdom.”

Furthermore, pride is strangely elusive. Is the soldier’s valor the less for his pride? Are intellectuals indicted by their very reasonable presumption that they excel the norm in thinking? Father Damien who died with his lepers may have been the most egotistical of men, “headstrong and bigoted,” according to the Rev. Hyde, but that has little to do with his work or, indeed, I would say, with his saintliness.

Claiming neither the saint’s self-sacrifice nor the hero’s fearlessness, I see no harm in mentioning when appropriate my bicycling, my passing acquaintance with Greek particles, or my familiarity with a few back lanes in Kathmandu. Though it may matter to no one else, to me the difficulty of earning each of these remarks is of primary importance. Tossed into this life, we look about at the marvels on every side. A sporting spirit will want to create a few challenges so one knows at least that one has played before the game is over.

Apologia for a Fondness for Pound

Since my middle school years, I have considered Ezra Pound the greatest poet of the first half of the twentieth century. (Who might be the best of the second half I cannot say, though I could name some good ones.) Whether I like it or not, this choice inevitably ensnares me in Pound’s politics, his peculiar brand of fascism and his more sinister anti-Semitism. Never wavering in my youthful judgment, I feel it remains necessary to make an apologia which, while it has nothing to do with art, is required on ethical grounds.

Dramatic and disturbing as Pound’s history is, it has no place in the evaluation of his work. Though critics agree on little, I think there would be a consensus among all but a few non-literary hangers-on (perhaps a stray Catholic or two or a superannuated vulgar Marxist) that assessment of literary value has nothing whatever to do with the author’s ideas or even the text’s relation to a reader’s lived experience. While it is true that for millennia the poet was charged with a simple and direct teaching role, we moderns have learned to use art’s fictions more subtly to sniff our way toward a satisfactory vision. For both the old Aesthetes and the New Critics, and all the more for many post-structuralists, the poem must stand (or fall) alone, independent of any facts of the author’s biography. Most of us recognize the old trope of the poet as prophet as a rhetorical figure, useful to intensify certain sorts of statements. It would be an uphill battle indeed for anyone attempting to claim for the artist a privileged access to Truth.

Still, fascism is so recent and pernicious a movement that it is difficult for some to accept the general rule. Our reading of Plato or Isaiah is not impeded by the fact that they saw nothing wrong in slavery; we can relish any of a host of European Roman Catholic artists who would not have dreamed of criticizing the Inquisition, even when the church was known to be torturing and killing its victims. Apart from such unquestioned fascists as Céline, D’Annunzio, and Marinetti, there were countless semi-fascists and casual anti-Semites in the first half of the twentieth century: Wyndham Lewis, Eliot, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. Even such an unlikely suspect as Gertrude Stein was a lifelong reactionary who thought Hitler deserved the Nobel Peace Prize and adored Pétain, calling him the “George Washington of France” and translating his speeches, including the virulent anti-Semitic passages. Whatever she may have been thinking, has this anything at all to do with Tender Buttons?
So Pound’s politics, whatever interest they may hold for historians, psychologists, economists, or ethicists, shouldn’t matter in reckoning his literary value. So far as I am concerned, this principle is not restricted to the arts. If I require the services of a heart surgeon, I will seek the best qualified and most experienced individual. Should he also be a Republican homophobe, my choice would not be affected. The same is true of all expertise.

Indeed, though it does not exculpate the poet, his anti-Semitism seems largely a monstrously ill-considered pose. Pound’s economic and political views were primarily based in a revulsion against the acquisitive consumer society modern capitalism has produced. His Social Credit ideas were peculiar, and he consistently maintained Jewish friends. Even his feeble final volte-face, in which he called anti-Semitism a “stupid, suburban prejudice,” suggests the irresponsible flimsiness of his racism.

(I might add finally, more as proof of how far off track these inquiries into poets’ political allegiances can lead one than from any evidentiary claim that I myself have always been an anti-racist, active on the left. My wife is also half Jewish, though I am afraid that is through her father.)

Pound’s importance in literary and critical history is unquestionable, yet my fondness for him is, I fancy, wholly aesthetic. I echo Eliot’s celebrated dedicatory praise: just as Arnaut Daniel was for Dante, Pound is in fact il miglior fabbro. It is clear that, the analysis of literary value depends on an interaction between text and reader and, for this reason, cannot be “objective.” One reader finds a jewel in what to another might be tiresome and empty. Still, certain works have, over time, proven richer and more productive than others. It is clear that this judgment does not predictably rely on inherent qualities when some texts of little inherent interest, certain passages in the Bible, for instance, have gained depth and significance through many layers of careful interpretation.

I can only lay out my case on Pound’s behalf. Perhaps his categories of melopoeia and phanopoeia (bracketing logopoeia for cause) can make my case. Can any modern composer of free verse match the music in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley?

These fought, in any case,
and some believing, pro domo, in any case . .
Some quick to arm,
some for adventure,
some from fear of weakness,
some from fear of censure,
some for love of slaughter, in imagination,
learning later . . .

some in fear, learning love of slaughter;
Died some "pro patria, non dulce non et decor". .

walked eye-deep in hell
believing in old men's lies, then unbelieving
came home, home to a lie,
home to many deceits,
home to old lies and new infamy.

As for images, one need not return to the early bits. Canto XVI, for instance, offers the following moments in a montage: “the road like a slow screw’s thread,” “[his eyes] whirling like flaming cart-wheels,” “flames patterned in lacquer,” “hell ticks, scales, fallen louse eggs,” “fish heaped in a bin,” and on it goes, an apparently inexhaustible fountain each term of which offers startling clarity.

Such exhibits could be endlessly extended, but to little purpose. The bulkiest chrestomathy could go no further than to specify my own reactions, without necessarily inspiring the like in others. Still every sensitive reader of poetry must agree that first-rate poetry obliterates biography and history, if only for a moment. When they return, as they must to salvage humane values, art’s terms are no longer in play. When, by that reckoning the poet must be condemned, the verdict has nothing to do with his art. And yet the art remains. And some will return to it, regardless the artist’s life. For those to whom the posies of the beaux arts make life livable (and the anthropological evidence is that this embraces all homo sapiens), all else can be, for a time, ignored.

Monday, October 1, 2012

A Note on Radcliffe’s The Italian

The distinction between high and low art used to be largely a matter of venue and milieu. Poetry appreciated in court circles such as troubadour lyric and sonnets is easily differentiated from folk-song, and one could hardly confuse Sidney’s Arcadia with a penny dreadful title. The growth of a literate middle class, however, that accompanied the coming of capitalism led to a new market with its own demanding taste. The novel itself was regarded as an inferior literary form for years (in China as well as in Europe), often composed and consumed by women who were no longer required to spend their leisure doing needlework.

The work of Ann Radcliffe, praised by the great Romantic poets and a best-selling author as well, illustrates characteristics of both popular and high art. Every piece of literature confirms some expectations while denying others, but popular works tend to be toward the reassuring side of that continuum while “high” art often raises contradictions and ambivalences if not outright denial of received ideas. Radcliffe’s books, like most television narratives, conclude with the happy ending that reassures the consumer that, in spite of temporary upsets, all is right with the world. Her characters are flattened and overdone: the heroes are most “manly,” possessing at once good looks, courage, and an unerring morality, while the heroines are lovely, pious, and proper to the degree that in The Italian Ellena Rosalba in The Italian is troubled by such scruples as worrying about keeping company with a male admirer while he is rescuing her from vicious persecutors. Meanwhile the villains are black-souled indeed, though Schedoni practices such titanic and self-controlled machinations that he has been compared with Milton’s Satan and considered influential in the Byronic anti-hero.

Between these factions, Radcliffe regularly distributes retributive justice in the most predictable manner. One need fear no more than in a comedy that all might not come right in the end. The loftier social classes are uniquely capable of fine feeling, of sensibility. The fair heroine’s marriage is impeded by her presumed lower status, yet she turns out in fact to have been high-born after all and from a virtuous father, rendering irrelevant the issue about whether alliances between classes are possible. Paolo is a fair type of the lower strata. He is an exemplar of the best quality of the low-born, which is to say he is fiercely loyal to his master. His hound-like devotion is so great that he repeatedly makes a fool of himself to lighten otherwise serious scenes, and he is rewarded in the end by being allowed to sing a repeated chorus of good wishes to Vivaldi, “O! giorno felice!

Though there is no questioning of the old stereotypes about men and women, morality, or the order of society, Radcliffe did participate in her day’s more intellectual and aesthetic currents. The “Gothic” novel has become a popular genre little remarked by critics, but in the late eighteenth century, it was a new and ambitious orientation toward the sublime. To Edmund Burke “terror is in all cases whatsoever . . . the ruling principle of the sublime.” To him the “Astonishment” associated with the sublime is invariably accompanied by “some degree of horror.” [1]

Mrs. Radcliffe expressed derivative notions in her posthumous essay “On the Supernatural in Poetry” [2] where she argues that “obscurity” and grandeur” combine to generate sublimity. To her this recipe holds “not only on frivolous occasions,” “but in the “most important pursuits of life.”

For all that, to the modern reader, it is almost as though fear is used to ratchet up the story’s impact like sex in a music video. The Italian setting announced in the title is itself a somewhat sinister place smoky with Roman Catholic incense and moral corruption. The Inquisition even appears. All these thematics are as expected; what is “modern” in Radcliffe is the delectation, the self-conscious reveling in a safe, emasculated horror, whose epigone we see in the young college graduate of today who likes nothing better than to dress as a zombie or a vampire.

The effect is similar with her descriptions of nature which may provide grandeur as well as mystery. [3] Sometimes extensive and pictorial, they remain thoroughly conventional, a code that should elicit the proper response. The topographical poets had particularized; Radcliffe is always painting variations on the same few scenes.

Her taste is surely influenced by the Graveyard School poets, or she was a product of the same trends in taste. The enjoyment of a sweet melancholy, colored perhaps by a faint hint of the beyond, either Christian or pagan, a breath of the sublime was evidence of a person of sentiment, an aesthete. Radcliffe broadened the audience for such a vision by washing her stories with the same elements and ameliorating the edgier elements (such as Cowper’s real depression).

Radcliffe’s reader sought a domesticated horror. Her books are filled with spooky, seemingly preternatural events, but they are virtually always explained rationally. By rational, though, I do not mean likely, for Radcliffe inherits from the Hellenistic romances a fondness for formal symmetry in plot, welcoming all-but-impossible coincidence such as the revelations of the identities first of Schedoni and then of Olivia. Far from a failure of verisimilitude, this was a clear literary code. Scott defined the romance by its “marvelous and uncommon incidents.” [4]

She added the newer aesthetic ideas of the time, including the taste for horror and for landscape and a lugubrious sense of mortality, and attracted a mass readership as well as impressing Shelley, Byron (who called her the founder of a school) and Keats (who refers to her enthusiastically as an influence in his letters). She raised the ambitions and altered the direction of the novel genre, adding to the woman-in-distress theme of Richardson the “sublimity” of terror and of landscape, the power of meditation on mortality, and the love of the exotic (which is to say the partially understood) which made her and Mary Shelley avid travelers and original travel writers.

Her oeuvre at once advanced the prestige and popularity of novels. Though some writers in other genres before had addressed a general audience and found critical celebrity (such as Shakespeare) and others had addressed an educated audience yet found a broader readership (such as Milton), Radcliffe mediated the levels of literature, using familiar themes dressed up in the latest aesthetic styles, and created new readership and new tastes for the form whose very name means new.

1. Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, published in 1757. Burke goes on to note that “obscurity” is effective as terror will dissipate with clear vision, adding that despots are secretive to excite fear in their subjects. He does not say whether such repression can result in the sublime.

2. First published in The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal, vol. 16, no. 1, 1826, 145-152

3. See Sir Uvedale Price's essay “On The Picturesque.”

4. See his “Essay on Romance.”

A Scholar’s Debut

I have fond feelings toward my essay on Mechthild von Magdeburg. My first sustained analysis of a Middle German text, it was published in the Mystics Quarterly, a journal that had once been called the Fourteenth Century Mystics Newsletter (the original title appealed to me, for it gave me a mental picture of some bearded figure with a rope belt slipping a few mimeographed pages through the slot to Julian of Norwich, bringing news of colleagues’ birthdays and visions).

“Transformation of Convention in Mechthild von Magdeburg” is also the first paper I presented at a professional meeting. I was still taking courses in graduate school when the essay was accepted for the annual Patristic, Medieval, Renaissance Conference at Villanova University near Philadelphia. This seemed a positive sign, as, for my part, I had been deeply ambivalent about scholarship, whereas from their side, the academics doubtless saw much in what must have looked like my gypsy’s history to give them pause. We had decided to take a chance on each other, and now it seemed that perhaps it might work out.

I decided that, since it seemed I might be on the point of acceding to the bourgeoisie after years of poverty, I should buy a new suit. The fact is, though I had spent whole years wearing almost nothing but blue jeans, I never taught without a coat and tie. I had a considerable collection of ill-fitting suits from the Salvation Army and dozens of antique ties with patterns I liked but which unfortunately had been made to end about the middle of the wearer’s chest when knotted properly. These served me well enough for the unlikely teaching positions I had held, but I decided my scholar’s debut required something grander.

Taking advantage of a sale at the Iowa City Montgomery Ward, I purchased a two-vent three-piece navy pinstripe suit with alterations-to-fit. Or that was the idea at any rate. As I recall my unseemly bicyclist’s thighs stretched the fabric from the day the man was running tape measures over me. The upper elements which felt a bit snug at first, seemed to shrink rapidly. Nonetheless, I felt I could make a proper impression in this suit.

My initial visual impact was threatened, however. Part of my eternal youth has been periodic manifestations of adult acne, and, rather like some teen’s prom nightmare, a sizable lesion appeared on my left cheek, giving my countenance a spot of unsettling roseate glow. I was building toward some sort of crescendo, but it was yet uncertain if it was to be dreadful or revelatory.

With my graduate student’s income deep beneath the poverty level, I ground my teeth at conference registration fees and eschewed hotels. An acquaintance at the Friends’ Meeting gave me the number of a relative who was rehabbing a building in West Philadelphia. It may have been the presumptive virtue of the Quaker connection, but this person whom I had never met (and never did) sent a key and an invitation to sleep on the floor of a vacant apartment. I managed to buy a cheap ticket from Chicago, and my arrangements were complete.

With the bus from the airport and the Main Line train, I made my way to Villanova where the meeting was in session. I attended panels faithfully, hearing, as one always does, some critics who put one in mind of Swift’s “projectors,” and others who provided occasional flashes of wit or insight. In my new suit, I felt quite at home. Even the alarming phenomenon on my cheek was subsiding.

After returning to the city center late at night, I took the elevated train line to the West Side. Unfamiliar with the city, I overshot my destination by a stop or two and found myself, shortly after midnight, resplendent in my suit, carrying the large, old-fashioned pre-attaché style briefcase in which I kept papers, toiletries, and underwear alike, down the middle of the Friday night urban African-American business strip. I walked the twenty blocks or so to the address at which I had aimed, past the loungers outside bars and bodegas to whom I may have seemed a bit of an apparition. Doubtless they thought I had a better reason to be there than in fact I did.

Fortunately, the key I had been sent worked. I unrolled my sleeping bag on the floor of the empty apartment.

The next day I returned to the conference and reveled in the semi-medieval ambiance created by the Catholic institution. I was delighted to attend the only panel I have ever witnessed conducted entirely in Latin: papers, questions, even a good deal of the chit-chat afterwards. I heard also about the work which had been going forward for over a hundred years already, the preparation of a critical edition of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas at the Pontifical Institute in Toronto. Not only was Aquinas productive, his books were preserved and copied to such an extent that the editor must consider all-but-countless variant readings and choose the best from hundreds of manuscripts, while noting all the rest. The publishing task was Herculean in its demands. In recent years some chores had been relieved by the analytical advantages of mainframe computers, and the decision had been made that, rather than the ponderous volumes they had been issuing for generations, which possessed gravitas in the extreme. only digital editions would appear in the future. The speaker said that some of the elder monks participating in the project, who had worked their entire lives on earlier volumes as assistant editors and were only just advanced to the point of having a book bearing their own names as editor, were broken-hearted at the change in format. Surely their merciful Lord will be tolerant of such bookish vanity.

Sunday morning I made my way again to the transit line and out to Villanova. My paper was scheduled for 8:30, the first session of the day. I shared the stage with a professor speaking on an unpublished collection of Florentine lay sermons, and another dealing with the fourteenth canto of Immanuel of Rome’s Mahberoth. Scattered about the front rows of a sizable lecture hall half a dozen scholars had got their faces washed and their coffee down in time to catch my debut. Or they were faithful friends (or underlings) of one of the other speakers. Several were loath to break off their exchanges of gossip. They probably see each other every year at PMR and never at any other time and each likes it that way, or at least that is how they looked to me as I entered. I was pleased enough with my work and no one else there had even read my author (as I in turn had never seen a page of Immanuel of Rome), so there could be no difficult questions, and I had a reasonably good time delivering my ideas on Mechthild. A couple of my listeners lingered to discuss related issues with me, and I felt as though I had earned an honorable position among the mandarins, all my youthful anti-academic prejudices conveniently invisible if persistent.

A week or so later I was elated to receive a note from one of the people with whom I had chatted. He was editing a book of selected papers from the conference and wished to include mine. I immediately sent him a revision, but, sad to say, I never heard from him again in spite of an inquiry. Ah well, each of us savants had gained a line on the c.v.

Becher's "Someone Stands Up"

Johannes R. Becher (1891-1958) exemplifies many of the tragedies and ambiguities of twentieth century history. A revolutionary from his youth in both politics and art, he knew the Dadaists and was for a time an active Expressionist. Arrested for an anti-war novel under the Weimar government, he became ever more dependably an orthodox Communist, eventually fleeing the Third Reich in one city after another, but finally settling in Moscow. There he fell under suspicion of Trotskyite taints during the purges of the thirties and informed on others. During this era he several times attempted suicide (as he had in his youth) yet he survived the war and returned to East Germany where he served as Minister of Culture, oppressing the same sort of young radicals among whom he had counted himself many years before.
This poem was first published in Um Gott in 1921.

Goddamned century! Chaotic! Without song! And you’re hung
out there, man, poorest of baits, with pain foggy mirages
Blinded. A kid. Frenzied. Scabs and sourness.
With blazing eye. Mad fury in the incisors. Whistling
over the cross in the neck waves the mild and endless ether.
Out from the graves. The factories. The asylums. Sewers,
spelunkers from hell.
Sun choruses sing hymns over the caves of the blind.
over the bloody deeps of the waters of slaughter
scatter God’s eternally fixed and magical stars.

You soldier!
You hangmen and thieves! And, the worst of all, the scourges
of God!
When – finally –
I’m asking – torn and full of raging impatience –
when will you be my brother?
the murderous knife moves restless from you into you,
weaponless, you wheel to face graves and fiends.
A deserter! A hero! Thanked! Glorified!
In fury you break the criminal gun to a thousand bits.
Reckless, you drop your goddamned “guilt and duty,”
and that crummy doglike duty
refuses brazen, baring teeth to profiteers, tyrants, and to
each and every boss.
your destructive step no longer stamps pitiless over the
peacefully lit lands of an earth animated with living
and you yourself – raging – tear yourself in pieces in a
glorious offering on the cross,
then . . .then . . . you will be my brother.
You’ll be my brother:
if you kneel repentant before the last and worst of the
pirates who have been shot,
despairing and submissive
a spiked fist through your coat of mail,
bearing down on the innards of your heart

pinned and loud with oaths, you scream it out –
“Look at this man here – he was my brother.
What’s going on? O my god my guilt.”

Then then you’ll be my brother.
Then then the final blinding day of paradise will come our
human fulfillment
all will reconcile with all
each will see itself in each
then the whipping commotion will melt away faint in the face
of our word of faith.
Your pride in headstrong Ararat will settle down free and
glad under gentle tides of selflessness.
The devil’s own attack, his burden, his noise dissipates
just as evil’s will to power’s overcome and helpless, most
limitless and boundless betrayal and triumph.

Tell me, my brother, who you are.
Rager. Raper. Villain and cop
Lying in wait, a glance on yellowed bones of your fellow man.
King Emperor General.
Gold gobble. Whore of Babylon and degeneration,
hate-bawling maw, fat purse, and diplomat
or . . . or . . .
a child of god!!??

Tell me, man, my brother, who you are. Lucky to be
throttled by the restless ghosts of slaughtered helpless innocents!?
The goddamned drained and blasted slaves and wage-slaves too!?
Hopeless pyramids round desert graves scalp and corpse
The dry tongues of the hungry and the thirsty are the
relish of your meal.
Death rattle lament, breath of death, the embittered
hurricane of rage a far-off lovely tune to you?
or . . . maybe . . .
the bellows of misery may not reach as far as you
you’re full as slow and tepid with your heartless prominence
is your hard severity thundered about by the cyclone of
these times truly unmoved?
Doesn’t your proud tower fall to pieces, stone by stone,
o let the pregnant donkey rest!
Your modern fruits: people grown soulless and brutal.
A ruler of the world – you are your own most heavy burden!!!

Tell me, man, my brother, who are you!?
. . . flawless star the cosmos above an answer to the
poorest’s prayer flagrant fiery wound a cool
and comforting balm –
magic sweet dew on the tiger’s wild thorn bushes –
fanatic terrorists in mildest Jerusalem –
never an end to hope –
no lying compass. Signs of god
juice of a bitter onion staring doubt
you fugitive from a tropical port, the lost boys --
none a stranger to you, a brother,
each close to you, a brother
Bee swarms stray and nest in you.
Your tub rests in a sleep of southerly breeze, snared in the
space of the labyrinthine wilderness
the beggar singing ecstatic, the poet without property
Ahasuerus, the unworldly melancholy pilgrim.
In the slumber leaves and oases your feet dive under
but in the temple of the Urals of your skin a bright
indefatigability ascends.
The sources of your purity
struggle on through curses and grasslands
in fortified citadels
you use the spice of lamb and the hillocks of spring.
An angel, you go down to where the poorest drag themselves
Even in hell you still can do some good.
Still the wicked clatter – a court your fledgling
from the street’s canyons of pestilential air
you ladle heavenly blood.

Grim Moloch of Heaven’s shore.
Spewer of poison gas or a harvest of healing.
Monstrous hyena or grove of palms
the wounds in Jesus’ side or a sponge of vinegar.

Tell me, man, o my brother, which of the two are you?!

the burning tide roars out the question.
Take a stand! Answer me!
I will have an accounting and
the torn earth from the powerful catapult of your brain:
desire and fullness and fate.
A blessed and fortunate future of kindly careless sleep
questions dawning already pulling you.
Pour yourself out! Confess and recognize yourself!
Hear me now! Make a change!
Be brave and think!
Man: you solitary stewer hardly human sinner tax collector
brother and betrayer: who are you?
Turn in your grave! Stretch yourself desire yourself!
Breathe! Make a choice at last! Evolve!
Lemon farm or exile’s thistle
chosen island or swamp of thieves
cellar of ruin illuminated prophet and Sinai of flames.
Locomotive’s rhythm brakes howling.
Man, man, my brother, who are you?

Sulfurous storm fill the evil azure space
the horizon of your desire pens you in.
( . . .down in the gore! Chest up! Head gone! Torn off!
Mashed! In the sewer’s snout . . .)
Still still it is time!

All out! For Revolution! Join the march!
Hit the street! Hurry! Leap from the Canaanite night!
There’s still time
man man man stand up stand up!!!