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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Monday, July 1, 2013

Economic Democracy

I oppose merit pay for teachers in part because no system – certainly not multiple choice tests, principals’ judgments, or peer review – can be fair. But I have, as well, a deeper, more fundamental objection. I have never understood why one worker should be paid more than another.
Surely, from our human perspective, since every individual is of unique and incalculable value, every person’s work shift, contributed toward the common store of goods and services, is an equal depletion of the worker’s time on earth. Why should one be compensated more than another? In this highly socialized society with the division of labor at such a height that a single product requires the contribution of thousands of workers we all must do some part to provide what we all consume.
A critic may object that such a system would fly in the face of human nature and enable mediocrity in the workplace. This claim assumes the culturally-bound assumption that people are all greedy and motivated primarily by the ambition to climb atop their fellow-citizens. This is clearly not the case. For over nine-tenths of human history, our species has survived through “primitive communism.” Palaeolithic people shared whatever they caught or found with the entire group, including aged, ill, and handicapped individuals. The means of production (that is, nature itself) was communally owned. Any advantage that accrued to particularly productive individuals was symbolic: admission to an elite society, the right to wear prestigious ornaments, and the like.
Even today many groups would find economic stratification ugly and immoral. Guatemalan peasants who do better than their neighbors will donate the excess to finance a fiesta (very like the potlatches of the old Northwest Coast). In the developed world Japanese and in Norwegians limit salary disparities; display of wealth is thought in poor taste. Far from being universal, American greed is exceptional.
Furthermore, even in the heart of Babylon many Americans currently ignore the powerful ideological brainwashing that declares money to be the sole end of life. Have not we all known people whose work and home life is ordered not by cash but by values such as family, art, politics, charity, religion, or love of knowledge?
As a matter of fact, far from distributing appropriate rewards, the current hierarchy rewards idleness at the expense of truly useful labor? Experience has taught me that salary and status are inversely related to productivity. Production workers in an auto plant are active throughout the shift doing the work of producing cars, while white collar employee invariably loaf a significant percentage of the day. Office work is often concerned with symbolic manipulation -- letters, reports, and meetings – many of which have no effect whatever. In the educational setting every schoolteacher is on stage constantly -- discerning, inventing, strategizing, and problem-solving – whereas every principal I have ever observed sought distractions to soothe the otiose hours. University professors do the research which is the unique role of higher education, while the administrators are rather like the custodians, necessary perhaps to maintain the operation, but in a decidedly supportive position, yet who receives the bigger checks? The same relation applies downward as upward. University adjuncts work harder and are paid less than regular faculty. During my brief spell in private industry, a textbook publisher, the work was done by editorial assistants while those in corner offices seemed to dream away the day. Head librarians gaze at Publisher’s Weekly while their underlings do the work of the institution. The administrative assistant is of most useful and least paid in the office. Big shots get endless perks and golden parachutes while the lowest paid workers do without any benefits at all and no thought of severance.
Similarly, alienated and demanding work like physical labor or industrial production is little-rewarded, while engaging, satisfying work such as a physician’s gets the gold. Closer to the top of the capitalist food chain, the owner lives on profit, extracted from his employees’ surplus value, the wealth that they create but do not receive in pay. What the IRS calls “unearned income” is quite simply that; though they are coddled by the taxman, those who get dividends, interest, and rent are drones indeed, producing nothing whatsoever. Yet they are well-rewarded for their uselessness. In the affluent suburb of my childhood, my mother ruefully commented, “No one gets rich from income, they get rich from investments.” Meanwhile our clothes are made and our produce tended by people working in semi-feudal positions.
The very most creative work is done by the low-paid (poets, artists, professors, scientists doing pure research). Einstein was on no payroll for his early work developing Relativity nor was Eliot when he wrote The Wasteland. It maligns our species to claim that people will only work to get ahead of their neighbors.
Perhaps a half-century ago, it became possible for everyone in the world to live in abundance while cutting work hours dramatically. Already two percent of American farmers raise surpluses for all the rest of us. Factory output could be the same. The fact is that without waste we would need work only a brief time every day, freeing ourselves for the unalienated pursuit of individual interests. Instead people starve for lack, not of food, but of money. People fight wars over resources when plenty is available to all.
Even in this utopian vision, there would doubtless be a few odd ducks who would resent economic democracy. Should someone feel the itch to have more than others, that person might work longer hours, sacrificing time for the sake of a number in a bank account. I suspect his associates would consider him no worse than slightly neurotic, but at any rate harmless. He would, at least, be unable to suck the life from others and despoil the planet as those of similar tastes do today.

Notes on Recent Reading 17 (McCarthy, Chang, Snorri)

Venice Observed (McCarthy)
Mary McCarthy’s book on Venice is clever, erudite, poetic, and alive with aesthetic judgments. Every reader must pay her attention when she begins her book with a series of pans of la Serenissima: Venice left Stendhal “cold,” to Herbert Spencer St. Mark’s was “barbaric” and the Doge’s Palace “dumpy” and “meaningless,” while D. H. Lawrence wrote of the “abhorrent green, slippery city.” Her treatment of painters is lively and entertaining – full of curious details such as the description of a grand life-size banquet scene designed by Sansovino and constructed by a druggist for the amusement of the French Henry III, this in the middle of a treatment of Veronese. Such grand artificiality is her theme, and she does the best job I know of the exploring the strange conundrum of the visitor who seeks a city’s essence in its “old town” which has no current use but to beguile the visitor’s gaze and to make of its populace touts and waiters if not worse.

Original Teachings of Ch’an Buddhism (Chang Chung-Yuan)
I am not familiar with any other translation of Shi Daoyuan’s Jǐngdé Chuandenglu (Transmission of the Lamp), a thousand year old record of Zen masters, one of the most important documents of the tradition. The early chapters in which speculative philosophy of the Tiantai and Sanlun schools arising from the work of Nagarjuna seeks ever subtler ways of engaging Ultimate Reality will give any thinker a salutary workout. With this foundation, he is better prepared for the confounding narratives of Mazu Daoyi who valued direct experiential insight and sudden enlightenment over systematic meditative practices, and established a new and distinctly Chinese Buddhism, influential to the present day.
The book is almost too rich. Who can absorb koan after koan, page after page, each seeking to crack the great nut of the true nature of things? A monk in traditional practice would ponder a single one for weeks. The seeker after Zen on the printed page can do no better than to read and reread and reread again.

Prose Edda (Snorri Sturluson)
In spite of Wagner’s operas and creditable translation work by William Morris and Auden, and Ursula Dronke’s magisterial though incomplete edition of the Poetic Edda, the Germanic pantheon has suffered from Greco-Roman cultural privilege. The great legacies of the Northland are the sagas written in Iceland that so effectively blend magic and history, hyperbole and understatement, high courage and rank selfishness and the fragments of an encyclopedic mythological system in the Eddas.
The Prose Edda, which I read in the unambitious Penguin rendering by Jesse Byock, resembles many other primary mythological texts in that it presents little systematic narration. As in Greek and Sanskrit myth, Odin and Thor, Loki and Balder, frost giants and black elves appear in discontinuous incidents or glancing references as often as in connected narratives. The awesome gap between human and divine familiar to followers of Abrahamic religions is absent here. Not only are various orders of being described – Loki, for instance, is neither divine nor human, Baldr is killed, Odin tricked, but, in addition, the whole house of the Aesir face Ragnarok, though the text tells us that beautiful places will remain after the cataclysm. Here is an apocalypse that could coexist with modern physics.
Those who have attended open poetry readings will find likely the story in which poetry is transmitted with mead made with the body of Kvasir, consumed by Odin, and spit into vats for the use of humanity. Some, however, he happened to expel from his rear: “We call this the bad poets’ portion.”

Sound Poetry and Edith Sitwell’s Façade

Poetry may appeal primarily through description, wit, theme, or melody. Music is a characteristic of all poetry, though its tune may be harsh or pretty or even assertively absent. Ordinarily the sound adds the pleasure of beauty while refining and reinforcing the poem’s sense. Some poems, however, use little sound-value, while for others sound is prominent.

Pure sound poetry – Klangdichtung or bruitisme – has itself a considerable history. Much oral poetry in the indigenous cultures of the American Plains and the Australian outback consists of nonverbal sounds, often repeated over a period of time. Magic spells and religious formulae such as mantras exploit the same mysterious power. Orwell notes (in “Nonsense Poetry”) the appeal of lines in folksong even after their original sense has decayed to meaninglessness. Sound is sovereign in forms as varied as scat singing and speaking in tongues. At certain moments the characters in Greek tragedy explode with wild shrieks, while in Aristophanes strange collocations of sounds (such as the utterances of the chorus of frogs) amuse. The humorous value of semi-articulate utterance is obvious in poems by Christian Morgenstern, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, and Hilaire Belloc.

As an avant-garde technique, sound poetry was championed by the Dadaists and Futurists, developed in various directions by later practitioners such as Henri Chopin, Bob Cobbing, and Michael McClure. When performed, such works can savor of spectacle and cast an incantatory power often lost on the page. But what can one identify as a classic of pure sound? Hugo Ball’s “Gadji beri bimba,” which was given a concert setting by Theodore Antoniou and later recorded by the Talking Heads’ David Byrne over an African beat, might be a candidate. It has, at any rate, little competition.

Many readers, though, would champion specific works of what might be called nonsense poetry or amphigouri , in which sound is the privileged element, and conventional syntax camouflages indeterminate, absurd, or rapidly shifting meaning. “Jabberwocky” would be way out front in a poll, I am certain, but my own money would be on the brilliant and delightful sequence Edith Sitwell called Façade. Though critics have sought systematic meaning and personal references in the poems, they strike me as abstract compositions aimed at producing enchanting patterns of sound while also sketching out, with great precision a series of tones or moods. In this the “entertainment,” as Sitwell termed it, resembles, to take a more modern and popular instance, the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in which the series of songs outlines not a narrative sequence but a catalogue of discrete emotional colors, arranged in a becoming succession. Either work is like an evening of elegant cabaret songs.

Though some of the poems were first published in her journal Wheels, the initial public performance in 1923 in which the performers, though on stage, were behind a curtain, and Dame Sitwell spoke through a Sengerphone, a large papier-mache megaphone, was of sufficient novelty to inspire hostile, if hasty, reviews. The author later described the general impression she made as “anything but peaceful. Never, I should think, was a larger and more imposing shower of brickbats hurled at any new work.” Noel Coward was said to stalked out, later writing a sketch called “The Swiss Family Whittlebot” satirizing the Sitwells. But such was the work’s appeal to unprejudiced ears that even the premiere attracted a good deal of appreciative comment. According to the London Illustrated News, the show “soon induced the audience to listen with breathless attention.”

Façade was first recorded in 1929, but the 1954 recording with Dame Edith herself performing with Peter Pears while Anthony Collins directs the English Opera Group Ensemble is the one to hear. (The work is also available in a version by Pamela Hunter. Kiri te Kanawa recorded three of the lyrics.)

These poems seem to me quite perfect. In each the satisfying music of the words is foregrounded, while sense hovers chimerically rather than being wholly absent. The texts are readily available, but I reprint one below for readers who do not know this singular work.


Sailors come
To the drum
Out of Babylon;
Foam, the dumb
Sky rhinoceros-glum

Watched the courses of the breakers' rocking-horses and with Glaucis,
Lady Venus on the settee of the horsehair sea!
Where Lord Tennyson in laurels wrote a gloria free,
In a borealic iceberg came Victoria; she
Knew Prince Albert's tall memorial took the colours of the floreal
And the borealic iceberg; floating on they see
New-arisen Madam Venus for whose sake from far
Came the fat zebra'd emperor from Zanzibar
Where like golden bouquets lay far Asia, Africa, Cathay,
All laid before that shady lady by the fibroid Shah.
Captain Fracasse stout as any water-butt came, stood
With Sir Bacchus both a-drinking the black tarr'd grapes' blood
Plucked among the tartan leafage
By the furry wind whose grief age
Could not wither - like a squirrel with a gold star-nut.
Queen Victoria sitting shocked upon a rocking horse
Of a wave said to the Laureate, "This minx of course
Is as sharp as any lynx and blacker-deeper than the drinks and quite as
Hot as any Hottentot, without remorse!
For the minx,"
Said she,
"And the drinks,
You can see
Are hot as any hottentot and not the goods for me!"