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.

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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.