Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.


A categorized index of all work that has appeared on this site is available by looking under the current month in the Blog Archive section and selecting Index.

This site is listed in BlogCatalog and
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Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Index

The index now features hypertext connections. Simply click on any title below to read it.

Though this listing serves, I think, a clear purpose, not every posting falls easily into the categories. One essay might equally be placed under literary theory or medieval texts while another might fit under memoir, politics, or travel. Translations with comment might be either criticism or translation. Poke around a bit.

The categories are:

1. speculative, familiar, performance pieces, and other essays

2. literary theory

3. Greek texts (and a couple of Latin)

4. medieval texts

5. other criticism
A. 16th-19th century
B. 20th century to the present
C. Asian texts
D. songs
E. Notes on Recent Reading
F. Rereading the Classics
G. Every Reader's Poets

6. translation

7. poetry

8. politics

9. memoirs

10. travel


1. Speculative, familiar, performance pieces, and other essays
Agnostic Credo and Vita (October 2015)
Axiology and Subjectivity (October 2014)
Annual Report (August 2014)
Beards (December 2013)
Biking (November 2009)
Biking as a Spiritual Discipline (April 2017)
Cell Phones (June 2017)
Cookbooks (April 2014)
Dead Reckoning (February 2011)
Deer (December 2012)
Documents of the first Surreal Cabaret (March 2012)
Documents of the second Surreal Cabaret (June 2012)
Documents of the third Surreal Cabaret (October 2013)
Documents of the fourth Surreal Cabaret (July 2014)
Documents of the fifth Surreal Cabaret (February 2015)
Drugs and Religion (June 2016)
Dust: a meditative riff (November 2009)
Food for the Gods (December 2011)
Hippie (April 2011)
Immortality (July 2012)
Iowa Communards (December 2011)
A Library’s Commonplaces and Curiosities (May 2011)
The Mannerly Hedonist (February 2013)
Notes and Inserts (June 2016)
Polka (November 2012)
On Pronunciation and Pedantry (September 2015)
In Praise of Bias (November 2014)
Still Biking (November 2012)
A Structural View of Certain Oracles (August 2015)
Supermarkets (October 2010)
Taking Off (November 2009)
This and That (September 2017)
Worn Tools (June 2013)


2. Literary theory
Afloat on the Ocean of Words (April 2016)
Allusion (March 2015)
Art and the Marketplace (April 2010)
The Familiar Note in Poetry (January 2017)
The Formation of a Christian Rhetoric (April 2011)
How and Why to Signify (July 2011)
Idea of Comedy (January 2012)
The Inconsequential Bayonets of Art: Militant Rhetoric and the Avant-Garde (May 2010)
Lament for the Loss of the Avant-Garde (March 2010)
Millenarian Rhetoric and the Avant-Garde (August 2010)
On the Proper Ends of Literary Study [James Seaton] (July 2014)
Placing the Popular in the Structure of Literature (October 2010)
The Pleasures of the Familiar in Literature (June 2016)
Poetry Amid the Fierce Chaos of the World (December 2009)
Prof. Wellek, Prof. Leavis, and Prof. de Man (December 2015)
The Question of Literary Value (August 2014)
Riddles and Poetry (March 2015)
The Signifying Monkey Talks Literature (April 2010)
Some Notes Toward a Theory of the Avant-Garde (October 2013)
Sontag's "Against Interpretation" (September 2016)
Sweet Treason: Translating Lyric Poetry (November 2009)
Thoughts on Mythology (March 2013)
Transformation of Convention (August 2013)
What is Poetry? (February 2012)
Winged Words: Notes on the Oral Performance of Poetry (May 2010)


3. Greek texts (and two Latin)
Aphrodite’s Bed: Love in the Homeric Hymn (August 2010)
The Birth of Erato: Lyric, Vision, and the Spread of Writing (January 2010)
Dionysos and the Pirates (February 2012)
Ekphrasis in Apollonius: Jason's Cloak (May 2017)
Gorgias (February 2010)
Hermes and the Art of Poetry (March 2013)
Longinus' Sublime (May 2012)
Notes on Pan (June 2014)
Oedipus and the Meaning of Polysemy (July 2011)
Poetry's Long Memory [Horace] (July 2016)
Professors Kick the Willy Bobo [on Athenaeus] (December 2009)
The Role of Rhetoric in Theocritus (February 2011)
The Role of Wine in Nonnus' Dionysiaca (February 2016)
Sappho’s Holy Tortoise Shell: Eros and Poetry in Ancient Greece (December 2009)
Seneca the Elder (March 2010)
A Skeptic's Faith [Sextus Empiricus] (January 2015)
Two Passages from Marcus Aurelius (June 2011)
The Web of Myth in the Hymn to Heracles (June 2012)


4. Medieval texts
The Aesthete of Desire: Lancelot and Courtly Love (July 2012)
The Aesthetics of Ambiguity in a Medieval Lyric (December 2012)
Aesthetic Principles of the Middle English Romance (July 2010)
Appropriation of Biblical Narrative in Patience (February 2013)
Bernart and the Music of Ideas (September 2016)
The Buddha in Europe: the Apologue of the Man and the Unicorn in Barlaam and Ioasaph (January 2011)
Chaucer’s Version of the Golden Age (June 2011)
A Conventional Ending in a Middle English Romance (September 2011)
Courtly Love in Romance of the Rose (August 2012)
Distant Rhyme in Two Medieval English Lyrics (August 2011)
The Early English Carol (June 2010)
Geoffrey of Vinsauf (April 2010)
Figures of Love in Lydgate's Temple of Glas (January 2014)
Functions of Alliteration in Thirteenth Century Lyrics (February 2011)
Hypermetric Lines in Beowulf (January 2011)
An Introduction to the Troubadours (January 2010)
Mechthild von Magdeburg (July 2010)
A New Look at Jaufré: Amor de Lonh as Criticism (December 2010)
Odin and Poetry (December 2015)
Openings in the Middle English Romance (July 2010)
The Pearl-Poet’s Use of Link-Rhymes (November 2011)
Phonetics and Semantics in the Last Line of Beowulf (March 2011)
Piers Plowman and the Man in the Moon (October 2011)
The Prima Etade of Literary Ambition [Petrarch] (March 2011
Transformation of Convention in Early Minnesang (April 2011)
Two Early Ballad Tales of Robin Hood (October 2014)
William IX (September 2010)
Who is Piers Ploughman? (June 2013)


5. Other criticism

A. 16th-19th century
Ambivalence in Thomson's The Castle of Indolence (March 2012)
The Archaeology of Gray's "The Progress of Poetry" (November 2017)
Baudelaire's "Painter of Modern Life" (July 2017)
Big Bill Otter's Sprees and Frolics (November 2013)
A Decadent's Dilemmas [Dowson] (March 2015)
Does Crabbe Look Forward or Back? (February 2016)
Dolce's Aretino (September 2015)
The Double Plot of Salem Chapel (December 2016)
Gascoigne's "Notes of Instruction" (September 2013)
Godwin's Theatre of Calamity (September 2015)
Herrick the Divine (August 2014)
Irving's Soft Romanticism (September 2017)

Keats' "Thing of Beauty" (November 2016)
Marius the Epicurean as a Modern (April 2015)
Moby Dick and the Density of the Aesthetic Text (January 2016)
"Monk" Lewis, Mr. Coleridge, and Popular Taste (July 2015)
A Note on Dryden and "Dramatick Poesy" (September 2012)
A Note on Radcliffe's The Italian (October 2012)
Pierce Penniless (May 2013)
The Play of Convention in Shakespeare's Sonnet 153 (April 2017)
The Problem with Swinburne (June 2015)
Rimbaud's Use of Montage (October 2016)
Shelley”s “Ode to the West Wind” as Structuralist Charm (May 2011)
Sir Thomas North's The Moral Philosophy of Doni (September 2013)
The Skeptico-Semiotico-Mystic: Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (June 2015)

Skepticism and Poetry in Keats' "The Eve of St. Agnes" (February 2015)
A Structural View of Meredith's The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (June 2017)
The Texture of Traherne’s Religious Thought (October 2010)
Thematic Continuity and Development in the Poetry of Christopher Smart: the Jubilate Agno and the Minor Poems (November 2010)
Thomas Love Peacock and the End of Poetry (August 2017)
Travelers [Marco Polo, Twain, Robert Byron](April 2012)
Trollope's Appeal (December 2012)
Two Notes on Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance (July 2014)
The Use of Nostalgia in Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life (August 2015)

B. 20th century to the present
Another Look at The Seven Lively Arts (June 2013)
Apologia for a Fondness for Pound (November 2012)
Are Uncle Tom's Children Bound by History? (April 2014)
Banjo (March 2017)
A Brief History of Negritude (February 2017)
Burns' and Lovick's Vietnam (November 2017)
Comics (February 2010)
Conrad's Shadow-Line (June 2014)
The Critical Palimpsest: Black African Literature through White American Eyes (January 2010)
Dada in America (April 2012)
Eisenstein's Strike and the Problem of Realism (April 2013)
Epiphanies in Dubliners (May 2016)
An Explication of Stevens' "A Primitive like an Orb" (October 2017)
False Translations (August 2016)
The Fetish of the Primitive in Twentieth Century Art (April 2015)
A Few Films (November 2016)
A Few Proletarian Writers (March 2012)
Flash Reviews of Thirty African Novels (November 2011)
Flyin’ with the Muses: Kirpal Gordon’s Eros in Sanskrit (May 2011)
Hell's House (November 2013)
Kerouac’s Weakness and Strength (January 2011)
Kurt Seligmann's Moderate Surrealism (November 2016)
Kurt Seligmann and the Poets (October 2017)
Kurt Seligmann's Riddlesome Symbols (March 2017)
The Last Poets (March 2016)
The Legacy of the Beats (March 2014)
The Lyricism of the Ugly: Celine's Mort à Crédit (December 2014)
The Man with the Golden Arm and a Friend with Six Seeds (January 2014)
On Marinetti's Avant-Garde Fascism (September 2017)
Onitsha Market Literature (February 2015)
Pig and Possum Teach Poetry (May 2014)
A Poem by Theodore Roethke (September 2011)
The Power of Picasso's Sculpture (November 2015)
Remarks on the Grassroots Poetry Scene (July 2017)
Saki's Novels (April 2015)
Sartre's "Black Orpheus (February 2017)
Some Poetry Reviews (December 2012)
Sound Poetry and Edith Sitwell's Facade (July 2013)
Two Graffiti (May 2011)
A Very Funny Fellow [Lev] (May 2012)

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

D. songs
Blind Willie Johnson Preaches (May 2017)
Bukka White's Limpid Lyric Clarity (November 2017)
"Down the Dirt Road Blues" [Charley Patton] (October 2011)
Fishing Blues [Henry Thomas] (October 2015)
Foggy Dew as Symbol (July 2012)
The Imagery of Hokum Blues Songs (July 2015)
"Lady Maisry" (November 2013)
"Moon Goin' Down" [Charley Patton] (May 2013)
The Mule in Blues Imagery (August 2017)
The Paraklausithyron Blues (May 2016)
"The Red Rooster" [Willie Dixon] (March 2014)
Robert Johnson and the Devil (September 2012)
Skip James' Blues Imagery (May 2015)
“Spoonful” and the Accretion of Meaning (December 2012)
"The Three Ravens" (August 2013)
Trinidadian Smut (April 2016)
Truckin' (November 2014)
“Walkin’ Blues” [Son House] (December 2011)

E. Notes on Recent Reading
Notes on Recent Reading [Melville, Greene, and Whalen] (September 2011)
Notes on Recent Reading 2 [Crane, The Crowning of Louis, Thornlyre] (October 2011)
Notes on Recent Reading 3 [Kipling, San Francisco Mime Troupe, Lynn’s Tao-te-ching] (November 2011)
Notes on Recent Reading 4 [Sarah Scott, de La Fayette, Wharton] (January 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 5 [The Deeds of God in Rddhipur, Burney, Cooper] (January 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 6 [Jewett, Addison, Crabbe] (February 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 7 [Nabokov, Austen, Grettis Saga] (April 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 8 [Bakhtin, Lewis, Brown] (May 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 9 [Plutarch, Tacitus, Williams](June 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 10 [Voltaire, France, Dryden](July 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 11 [Wright, Kerouac & Burroughs, Gilbert] (August 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 12 [Huxley, Norris, Dōgen](September 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 13 [Mirabai, Wood, Trocchi] (November 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 14 [Algren, Hauptmann, Rolle] (January 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 15 [Hemingway, Orwell, Gaskell]{February 2013}
Notes on Recent Reading 16 [Howells, Ford, Mann] (April 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 17 [McCarthy, Chang, Snorri](July 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 18 [Radcliffe, Stendhal, Erasmus](October 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 19 [Powers, Zhang Ji, Vietnamese folk song] (February 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 20 [Rowe, Stevenson, Issa] (May 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 21 [Fussell, Mahfouz, Watts] (August 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 22 [Waugh, Belloc, Okakura] (October 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 23 [Naipaul, Dinesen, Spillane] (January 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 24 [Fielding; Izumo , Shōraku, and Senryū; Plath] (June 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 25 [Baskervill, Gissing, Capote] (July 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 26 [Tuchman, Premchand, Cocteau] (November 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 27 [Forster, Sackville-West, Capote] (January 2016)
Notes on Recent Reading 28 [Verne, Waley, Hurston] (March 2016)
Notes on Recent Reading 29 [Achebe, Jewett, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam] (October 2016)
Notes on Recent Reading 30 [Bradford, Scott, Marquand] (April 2017)
Notes on Recent Reading 31 [Marlowe, Trollope, p'Bitek] (August 2017)
Notes on Recent Reading 32 [Morrison, Cary, Kawabata] (October 2017)

F. Rereading the Classics
Rereading the Classics [Burton] (November 2011)
Rereading the Classics [Gogol] (August 2012)
Rereading the Classics [Goldsmith] (December 2016)
Rereading the Classics [Kleist] (February 2012)
Rereading the Classics [Montaigne] (December 2013)
Rereading the Classics [Rabelais] (December 2011)

G. Every Reader's Poets
Every Reader's Blake (May 2017)
Every Reader's Herrick (December 2015)
Every Reader's Hopkins (May 2016)
Every Reader's Milton (January 2017)
Every Reader's Pope (May 2015)
Every Reader's Shelley (November 2014)
Every Reader's Skelton (March 2016)
Every Reader's Wyatt (December 2014)
Every Reader's Yeats (January 2015)


6. Translation
Alkaios' Happy Hour (January 2017)
Becher's "Someone Stands Up" (October 2012)
Christian and Dedicatory Epigrams from the Greek Anthology (March 2010)
Emmy Hennings (February 2010)
Emmy Hennings Poems (More from Die Letzte Freude) (November 2010)
Four Poems from the German of Richard Huelsenbeck (January 2010)
Four Quatrains by Wang Wei (January 2013)
Hans Arp (April 2010)
The Homeric Hymn to Dionysos (February 2012)
Horace I.21 (July 2016)
Hugo Ball (July 2010)
Hymn to Aphrodite (August 2010)
Hymn to Heracles the Lion-Hearted (June 2012)
Hymn to the Night [Novalis](March 2012)
Hymn to the Night II [Novalis] (July 2012)
Hymn to Pan (May 2014)
Leonidas of Tarentum (May 2010)
A Mixed Bag of German Translations (August 2014)
Rimbaud's "The Lice-Pickers" (March 2014)
Seven Poems from Léon-Gontran Damas (February 2017)
Some Anonymous Middle High German Lyrics (August 2011)
Three Horatian Odes (November 2012)
Translations of William IX (September 2010)
Wordsworth Speaks German (July 2011)
Yet Two More Versions of Wang Wei (June 2011)


7. Poetry
African poems (August 2010)
Domestic Incidents from the Life of the Lama Swine Toil (June 2017)
How to Be a Poet (June 2010)
The Liturgies of the Lama Swine Toil (September 2012)
Mexican poems (September 2010)
Poems from New Mexico (July 2010)
Poems from Turkey (June 2010)
Produce poems (May 2010)
The Soap Opera of the Pair Who Forgot Themselves, but only Temporarily (August 2012)
Some Sonnets (April 2010)
Three Poems from Peru (August 2011)
Two Lyrics on Death from Central America (January 2012)


8. Politics
Black Lives Matter (August 2016)
Economic Democracy (July 2013)
The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Port Huron Statement (June 2012)
Hard Rain Still Fallin’ (September 2010)
How to Get Serious about Fighting Crime (January 2010)
Local Politics (May 2015)
In Memory of a Generation's People's Heroes (October 2015)
Occupy Wall Street (November 2011)
The Role of Higher Education (November 2010)
The Socialist Martin Luther King (February 2016)
The Triumph and Tragedy of Revolution (December 2016)
Two Exemplary Anecdotes from the Sixties Student Movement (September 2013)
Utopia (November 2015)
Voluntary Poverty (October 2011)
Why I am a Socialist (March 2010)


9. Memoirs
Baby Boomer Reads the Beats (April 2012)
A Brief Literary Life (September 2012)
A Garland of Greek Professors (December 2010)
A Glimpse of Robert Bly (August 2012)
Grandparents (December 2009)
High School (August 2014)
Hip Poets of Seventies San Francisco (January 2011)
How I Came to Work at Scott Foresman (July 2017)
How I Was Hired to Teach in Nigeria (May 2011)
IWW (April 2011)
March in Cicero (December 2009)
A Memorable Roomer (June 2014)
My Most Politically Active Year (February 2011)
Nova Academy (March 2011)
Pestering Allen [Ginsberg] (March 2012)
Poetry on the Loose (September 2011)
A Scholar's Debut (October 2012)
Sherman Paul (August 2016)
Suburbanite in the City (November 2010)
Tim West (March 2013)
VISTA Trains Me (June 2011)


10. Travel
Arrival in Nigeria (August 2015)
Acadiana [Lafayette, Louisiana] (May 2010)
An Armenian Family in Bordeaux (December 2014)
Carnival [Portugal] (May 2012)
Cookie Man [Morocco] (October 2011)
Creel (October 2010)
Dame Fortuna in Portugal (May 2012)
Dinner with Mrs. Pea [Thailand] (April 2013)
Election Day in Chichicastenango (January 2012)
An Evening in Urubamba (July 2011)
Festival in Ogwa [Nigeria](January 2011)
On the Ganges' Shore (August 2013)
The Guru of Guinness (July 2016)
Haarlem (July 2010)
Hitchhiking in Algeria (September 2010)
Hitchhiking in France (January 2014)
Hungarian Food (December 2010)
Introduction to Tourist Snapshots (June 2010)
Jemaa el Fna (December 2010)
Knee-deep in History [Vietnam, Cambodia] (February 2014)
Najibe’s Stories (September 2011)
Nigerian Names and Vehicle Slogans (March 2011)
A Palm Wine Shack [Nigeria] (December 2011)
Portraits from a Floating World: Anonymous (October 2016)
Portraits from a Floating World: Najibe and Sandro (February 2010)
Portraits from a Floating World: Gahlia and Jack (June 2010)
Portraits from a Floating World: Leslie Spector and Pa’ahssyzy (August 2010)
A Problem on the Border [Algeria] (June 2011)
A Reading in Kathmandu (November 2009)
Sacred Space as Sideshow [Prague] (February 2010)
St. Joseph’s Day at the Laguna Pueblo (April 2011)
A Stroll around Lake Bled (May 2013)
Strong Stuff [Marrakech] (October 2012)
Tetouan (November 2010)
The Theory of Souvenirs (April 2012)
A Trip to India (January 2016)
Two Parades [India and Peru] (August 2011)
The Valley of Beautiful Women [Eger, Hungary] (March 2010)
Vignettes of Sunny Nigeria (March 2011)
A Waterfall near Marrakech (February 2011)

The Archaeology of Gray’s “The Progress of Poetry”


One thinks casually of eighteenth century Augustan literature as highly formal and conventional, its values derived from that age of Roman antiquity which was already belatedly looking backward toward the Greek. The learned classical references that ornament the poetry of the period may seem to be decorative only, signs of allegiance to the lofty standards of the ancient masters, a sort of pretty upper-class language that operated almost like slang, to indicate in shorthand fashion a background and values shared by many European intellectuals. Though Gray’s “The Progress of Poetry” contains numerous references that could be described in this way, there is a deeper, more archaic layer of mythology in his account. Embodying many traits of the nascent Romantic movement and familiar (as very few in earlier eras had been) of the oral poetries of traditional societies, Gray uses mythology in a passionate, intuitive, and personal way at the same time that he observes the usage accepted, even required, from poets in his day. While the conventional allusions support the straightforward burden of the poem as an account of poetry’s history from Classical times through the Middle Ages up to his own day, indeed to himself, this deeper personal level of mythology suggests an altogether different theme.

Gray was an excellent Classical scholar, spending much of his life as a fellow at Cambridge. His familiarity with both Greek and Latin literature was far beyond that required to make the gestures toward antiquity that were de rigeur in his day. Such references as those in the opening stanza of “The Progress of Poetry” to the Aeolian lyre and to Helicon are as graceful and informative, if as lacking in originality, as the many similar allusions in other authors. The first of these images has a specific meaning significant in his poem in Coleridge’s “The Eolian Harp,” but here is it largely conventional, signifying little more than poetry in general. Using such terms at the outset of a poem establishes the writer’s bona fides as a scholar qualified to compose poetry.

Yet Gray is clearly, with Thomson, Collins, and Cowper, a precursor of Romanticism. The very fact of his imitating Pindar, rather than, like Samuel Johnson, Horace, is evidence for the revaluation taking place. Pindar’s poems are more open in form and associative in logic, spraying mythological names with abandon and daring the reader to keep up. His awareness, imperfect as it may have been, of the pre-Christian oral poetry Celtic, Norwegian, and Welsh, as well as from Lapland and America distinguishes him from earlier critics who would have felt such “primitive” poetry to be necessarily inferior. Further, his sympathetic ear equates with poetry the sounds of awakening nature, the “thousand rills,” the “laughing flowers,” the whole “rich stream of music,” he can hear “rebellow to the roar.” Thus the whole generative engine of nature is incorporated into his own verses.

Somewhat optimistically Gray notes the power of art to make life livable, banishing “sullen Cares.” In a clear expression of the Romantic politics of radical dissent, he claims that poetry is associated with “Freedom’s holy flame,” ignoring the centuries-long association of art with the ruling class.

In spite of such sympathetic approaches to Romantic ideals, Gray was criticized by Wordsworth in the seminal statement of Romantic poetic theory, the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, for his inauthentic “curiously elaborate” language distant from that of ordinary prose in his “Sonnet” on the death of Richard West, surely one of Gray’s most strongly-felt compositions. While there is little doubt that Gray’s emotion was genuine and profound, the poem’s use of Apollo is as wholly conventional.

The same vaguely unfocused generative powers of nature that fail to console the grieving poet underlie his excited joy at the beginning of “The Progress of Poetry,” where the transference of energy in the poem is originally felt in the flow of poetry itself, which is likened to the fructifying streams. In later stanzas the same redemptive force is attributed to Aphrodite by (stanza I.3), then to the Muse (II, 2), and finally to the figure of Fancy (III, 3). The successive appearance of these representations of the divine female support the concluding image of the poet as Pindar in the form of a “Theban Eagle,” soaring to the empyrean.

Classed as one of the “graveyard poets,” Gray’s outlook was indeed melancholy. Apart from the loss of innocence of which he complains in his Eton College ode, “The Progress of Poetry” contains a catalogue of causes of suffering “Labour, and Penury, the racks of Pain” culminating in “Death” and conquerable only by the Muse which is able to banish “Night, and all her sickly dews.”

Gray used the conventional images of Classical learning, invoking the goddess as an ally against these universal threats to mankind, but in his mind the goddess also assumed a very individual meaning. His muse was a lover but also a maternal figure protecting him from meanness and vice. Though she is associated with nature’s reverdie, she also protects against the uncontrolled passions. In his "Hymn to Ignorance" he appeals to the goddess of not-knowing, feeling he would be far happier with less insight and regretting that he “forsook” her “fond embrace.”

In his “Ode to Spring” Venus’ powers are inadequate to do more than provide a temporary respite from cares; in the end the poet feels himself to be “a solitary fly.” Most pointedly, in the “Ode to Adversity” he praises adversity, particularized as “Despair, and fell Disease, and ghastly Poverty,” as a “rigid nurse” who teaches “Virtue” and cultivates philosophy by teaching the poet “to love and to forgive.” Though “wit” had been the byword of Pope’s generation, according to the “Hymn to Ignorance” he feels “filial reverence” for the protective value of lack of knowledge, looking with nostalgia on earlier eras when the whole world was ruled by ignorance, undeceived by “Wit’s delusive ray” which may tempt people into transgression. In “The Progress of Poetry,” art is a firewall against “frantic Passions.” For Gray the divine female, though associated with fertility and love, is paradoxically an aid in self-control. While he is attracted to the Romantic values of imagination and emotion, he is cautious and seeks to moderate these potentially explosive forces. In Gray’s greatest poems, this mythology is highly ambivalent.

At the end of “The Progress of Poetry” the persona takes flight like an eagle, an image familiar from Pindar, imitated by Bacchylides and Horace, and thus wholly acceptable as a routine ornament. The image of the high-flying poet is, of course, far more archaic than those writers. The notion of a poet/seer flying into the air to attain wisdom is one of the most common shamanistic tropes. Gray may have been wholly unaware of these archaic usages, but he reenacts them for the eighteenth century in his odes.

Thus he sprinkles Classical allusion over the surface of his verse like a baker adding roses of icing to a cake, but, at the same time, at a subterranean level, he expresses his moral and existential anxieties and his hope for the liberation of poetic flight into the sublime. As psychological facts these tensions imply his own mental distress and internal division, while intellectually, they suggest the conflicts associated with his writing just on the brink of Romanticism. Perhaps such ambivalence is a factor in his extraordinarily small oeuvre which amounted during his lifetime to only thirteen poems, less than a thousand lines in total. If so, the poems he did write may be all the more dense and significant, precise and beautiful, for the ambiguity they suggest, more worthy perhaps than a few thousand lines of a lesser writer’s wholly conventional verse. Though Gray turned down the position of Poet Laureate, he had in his own day and has today far more readers than Colley Cibber who held the honor for decades or William Whitehead who succeeded him.

Burns' and Lovick's Vietnam

PBS has cut me off. After I watched three episodes of the Vietnam documentary Ken Burns made with Lynn Novick, the online site of this “non-commercial” institution demanded payment to see another. It was one of the rare times, less often I think than once a year, that I am prevented from seeing something by lacking television through broadcast, cable, or satellite. I saw, nonetheless, enough to make a few observations.

This production is significant because Mr. Burns’ reputation guarantees that this version will be definitive for a generation. Youth to whom the experience of the war is remote will shape their ideas through this single retelling. And the Burns production machine does not disappoint its fans. The film, long as it is, is immensely watchable. Research assistants have combed the archives for apposite pictures and films so that even events that could not have been photographed are illustrated in what seem to be relevant images. Talking heads give the viewer what passes a reasonable facsimile of all perspectives, though I would have preferred to have seen a larger number of people interviewed and fewer repetitions of the same personalities. The editing is brisk and smooth, and the product is easily digestible, too easily for my taste.

One of the axioms of the sixties movement was that objectivity was an illusion, that all works inevitably have a point of view, just as their makers do, and that the story-teller who adopts a pose of impartiality is deceiving either self or consumers. A responsible documentary maker will do better to acknowledge rather than deny bias, so that watchers may allow for it. Those who claim to show both sides equally inevitably have a hidden agenda, virtually always in defense of the status quo.

In the years since the war opinion has shifted to such an extent that no one now defends the failed American involvement as justifiable. Anti-war protestors are now acknowledged to have been correct in their analysis of the uprising as a nationalist struggle while the USA played the unattractive and ultimately untenable role of attempting to prolong colonial rule. An apologist for the war effort today to have even a semblance of credibility must substitute indirect and emotional arguments for historical facts.

It is only by ignoring America’s imperialist motives that the filmmakers can claim that the war was “begun in good faith” and “went wrong” in some mysterious way for which no one can be blamed. The documentary is careful to claim atrocities by popular revolutionary forces in order to give the illusion of balancing the clearly tyrannical rule of the Vietnamese collaborators like Thieu and Ky. Though it can pass for even-handedness to the casual observer, this treatment in fact obscures the very real difference between the patriots who fought to rid their country of foreign invaders and the front men for neo-colonialism.

It is precisely Burns’ and Lovick’s skill at capturing the audience by presenting engaging little narratives that allows them to ignore the larger facts of the conflict. The sound track features folk-style popular music from the era to illustrate the soldiers as well as the protestors, providing a general liberal-seeming wash over the entire picture. The popular country and Motown tunes of the day are absent, and one would never guess how marginal the position of dissenters remained until 1969 or 1970.

Through the first three episodes the series follows a single exemplary soldier, clearly one destined to be killed in combat, a certain “Mogy” Crockett whose family is so atypical that he has not only a cute and comic nickname – his ever-so-well-put-together mother tells us she inspired his patriotism by reading him Shakespeare’s Henry V as a bedtime story. “Mogy” is a highly motivated Cold Warrior, educated and gung-ho about killing Communists. Would it not have been preferable to have focused on some more typical draftee, indifferent about the war but accepting of the draft? The narrative of the documentary as it stands implies that the war was fought by sincere but mistaken enthusiasts. Even a Special Forces veteran to whom I spoke recently said that a week in country was enough to convince him the war effort was profoundly misguided and headed for defeat.

Similarly, the politicians are generally depicted as reluctant prosecutors of war policy, always feeling forced to widen and apologize for the war while at the same time keeping many aspects of it secret from the public. Of course it is necessary to understand the motives of the ruling class during this period, but the film’s account would suggest that American leaders were victims of circumstance, blundering perhaps, but trying to do the right thing, when they were in fact mercilessly seeking to impose American control over a small and distant land.

Further, the filmmakers portray Ho as the steady and benevolent “uncle” of his own mythology while blaming Le Duan for the harsher Stalinist aspects of North Vietnamese policy as though history relies in the end on personalities.

Burns and Lovick shrink from calling Vietnam an imperialist war which is the only accurate term. It was fought to maintain American control over what had been a French colony. The government’s own deceit is evident in clips of John Kennedy’s usually smooth rhetorical flow turning bumbling and unsure as he tries to claim that we are not simply replacing one colonial system with another. But that was precisely the plan. The USA became committed to defeating the Vietnamese shortly after killing Lumumba and overthrowing Arbenz and Mossadegh; it then supported right-wing dictatorships around the world which suppressed all civil protest, leading to the rise of armed insurrectionary movements on every continent.

Perhaps seeing the remaining seven episodes would alter my view of the series. I doubt it. An honestly engagé account of the war would have far more integrity than this sentimental picture in which everyone seems to be morally equivalent, all doing their best as violence and untold suffering unaccountably mounts as though Americans and Vietnamese alike were stalked by some mysterious and pernicious Nemesis. That view may even in the twenty-first century be more acceptable to Americans than the reality of leaders set on American hegemony over a smaller, weaker nation and an army of dupes, forced into harm’s way by Congressmen whose own sons had better things to do than slog through Southeast Asian jungles.

Bukka White’s Limpid Lyric Clarity



Bukka White recorded many of his songs in several versions, particularly in the later phase of his career. The lyrics differ but usually only in details insignificant for my thesis. I am not including the texts of the songs to which I refer as they are readily available.


Though poetry and art in general have a unique capacity to express the irrational processes that underlie human consciousness and thus excel in representing ambiguity and the mysterious, some works appeal to the reader very simply and directly. Such simplicity is often associated with honesty which has been praised as a desirable literary quality since Classical times. To Plato “Beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity” [1] When Sir Philip Sidney reported his Muse’s mandate “look in thy heart and write" he was employing a rhetorical pose, but one which gains its power from the claim that it presents a subjective truth unornamented. Sincerity became a far more widely recognized literary value with Rousseau’s Confessions and the Romantic movement. By later Victorian times this standard had become sufficiently accepted that to Matthew Arnold “an essential condition” of great poetry is “the high seriousness which comes from absolute sincerity.” [1]

In the blues songs of Bukka White the listener encounters few surprising or original metaphors and little in the way either of ambivalence or complexity. For instance, “Good Gin Blues” barely goes beyond declarations like “I wants me a drink of gin” and “I love my good old gin.” To some the celebration of alcohol may seem an insubstantial theme, but White approaches love with a similar lyric clarity. For instance the first verse of “Bukka’s Jitterbug Swing” is a simple statement of desire in which the primary rhetorical device is repetition.


Hey-eee, come on you women
Let's a do the the jitterbug swing
Hey-eee, come on you women
Let's a do the the jitterbug swing
When ya do the jitterbug swing
Then you know you will be doin' the thang


The song closes with the same outcry reaching beyond language with which it opened.


Hey-eee, please ma'm don't say, 'Uh-uh'


In his version of “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” a song originally recorded by Big Joe Williams as a prisoner’s lament, each of the fifteen stanzas opens with a poignant line, repeated three times. The song’s long life as a rhythm and blues and rock and roll standard [3] is surely a reflection of the understated power of such lines as that of the title (which itself occupies four stanzas), “turn your lamp down low,” and “I b’lieve your man done come.” White’s song of love longing associated with incarceration, “Poor Boy Long Way from Home” is similarly minimal with the fact of separation bearing the emotional burden, progressing only from the title phrase through the plaintive cry “Baby, I wanna come back home to you” to the final poignant stanza in which the singer says he cannot even make contact by telephone.

White complains of depression in the most concrete manner, in “Sleepy Man Blues” declaring “when a man gets trouble in his mind/ he wanna sleep all the time.” His struggle to “stay in the sun shine” and “keep from weakin’ down” is all the broader in implication for his lack of further specification. Similarly, his complaint on his mother’s death “Strange Place Blues” laments the alienation the singer experiences at his mother’s death not through explicit lamentation but by calling himself a stranger in a strange place. In the same way he sings of the hardship of prison not by protesting brutality but with the question “When Can I Change my Clothes,” repeating the question through six stanzas with little variation but with incremental intensity. Similarly, the immensely moving “Parchman Farm Blues” simply says “I sho’ wanna go back home.”

White’s gospel turn “I am in a Heavenly Way,” perhaps one of his most minimalist songs, repeats the word joy as a kind of single syllable mantra fifty-seven times through fifteen stanzas if my count is accurate. Here poetry functions less as delivery of information than as a magic charm.

The primary signification of works like these by White cannot be doubted. The critic may note subtle sound effects and allusions to other songs, but the fundamental impact of these songs is on the surface. This analysis implies no value judgment. Every reader of Hemingway’s fiction is aware that simple statement, even understatement, can be as powerful as indirect, complex, or conflicted formulations especially when dealing with the most powerful and fundamental of human passions. Lack of rhetorical figures is in itself a figure, and Bukka White was a master of the cri de coeur.


1. This is Jowett’s version of the Republic III 400d-400e.

2. Matthew Arnold “The Study of Poetry.” The slippery impressionism of the standard is well-illustrated by the fact that Arnold asserts without thinking he need present any evidence that Burns and Chaucer are lacking in this regard. In Burns he finds “something which makes us feel that we have not the man speaking to us with his real voice; something, therefore, poetically unsound.” One looks in vain for further specification.

3. Versions were recorded by the doo-wop group the Orioles and by Muddy Waters before the rock versions by Them, Van Morrison, AC/DC and others.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

An Explication of Stevens’ “A Primitive like an Orb”


Wallace Stevens’ late poem “A Primitive like an Orb,” like Beethoven’s late string quartets is elegantly wrought and profoundly spiritual, though both the poet and the composer puzzled or put off a portion of their initial audiences. [1] The early work that established Stevens’ reputation was replete with lapidary images, at times tumbling one after another with such speed as to dizzy the reader, but generally sharply defined, solid, and earth-bound. “A Primitive like an Orb,” published when the author was sixty-eight years old, is far more abstract and assertively thematic, even tendentious. The poem, more explicitly than anything in Harmonium, more clearly even than his “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” proffers a spiritual, indeed a mystical, potential in art alone stripped of religion’s conventional clothing in mythology and supernaturalism. In Stevens’ terms god is a “supreme fiction,” known to be illusory but efficacious nonetheless when willfully believed. [2]

Stevens is hardly alone in defining a non-supernatural route to illumination. In their various ways, Jains, some Stoics and Skeptics, pantheists, most Buddhists and some Hindus have done the same, but Stevens presents a modern sophisticated attempt to recover religion from the ruins left by the “death of God” in the nineteenth century.

In “A Primitive like an Orb,” Stevens outlines what is at once his aesthetic and spiritual philosophy, with a majestic Olympian confidence beyond that of his often highly qualified and oblique prose musings. Using metaphors of surprising and illuminating originality (called “opulent” in stanza 4) and French-style syllabic alexandrines (for the most part) of such music that their authority is difficult to question, the poet soars above the decorative and ameliorative, seeing the eternal in the ephemeral, the pattern underlying each perception, the macrocosm in every microcosm, with a grand mystery parallel to that promised by mystics and occult savants.

A linear paraphrase of this ambitious notion as it unfolds through the poem’s ninety-six lines may be useful though the idea is present from the start. I take the word “primitive” in the title in the sense of originary, though it bears traces as well of association with the religious paintings of the “Italian primitives.” The “orb” is the Platonic sphere of which, in the Timaeus, the philosopher says “the shape of a sphere, equidistant in all directions from the center to the extremities, which of all shapes is the most perfect” [4] The “perfect” shape is later the basis for the concept of the divine as “an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere” [5]

To seek what is promised in the initial phrase “the essential poem at the centre of things” the poet first notes the necessity of recognizing that every significant perception entails an “apperception.” What one sees is not the discrete object outside but a connection, a relationship, a dyad of viewer and viewed. In this way the “cast-iron of our lives” is “gorged” with “good.” The process is aided by beauty, always a subjective, mind-created quality, in the poem signified by “nymphs” and “genii,” the graces that signify art. (stanza I)

The possibility of a “supreme fiction” is suggested by the ambiguous veridical status of art. “It Is and is not and, therefore, is.” [3] The beauty of art, “its huge, high harmony,” affirms a validity and a reality distinct from that by which other discourses are tested (“a separate sense”). Once accepted, once it “captives the being,” the truth of art seems to inhere in the nature of things, to have always been there. (stanza II)

The “captiving” of the senses that occurs with the apprehension of aesthetic vision brings immense and intimate pleasure (“what milk,” “what wheaten bread and oaten cake,” “green guests and table in the woods and songs”) at the same time as it remains powerful, divine, and mysterious. The “secluded thunder” of such revelation allows access to what was otherwise “too heavy for the sense to seize,” a truth manifest yet obscure. (stanza III)

The rewards for the poem’s reader are not limited to delight, but rather extend without limit, until “last terms, the largest, bulging still with more.” Steven’s emphasis is on apperception. [6] It is neither the vision itself nor the subjective mind that can produce “the fulfillment of fulfillments” but only the connection, the link, the integration of the consciousness with the world. “One poem proves another and the whole.” [7] Only by infusing reality with passion may “the lover, the believer, and the poet” whose “words are chosen out of their desire” shape language to a reflection of themselves. In this way they “celebrate the central poem.” Is this not similar to the Chandogya Uphanishad’s assertion that the individual atman is identical to the cosmic Atman, though with aesthetic language substituted for the mythological? (stanza IV)

Insistently repeating his theme, Stevens declares that through this process in which the mind and the world inform each other “by sharp informations” (precise imagery) until “the central poem became the world.” (stanza V) with a sensuality recalling erotic love. [8] We make love to creation through language ”each one the mate of the other.” The poet is “the mate of summer,” the refracted image of self “a self of her that speaks, denouncing separate selves” and exploding dualities. The process, like human love, is productive as “the essential poem begets the others.” (stanza VI) In the end “the central poem is the poem of the whole,” in which the cosmos as a whole has a coherence and a meaning like that of a well-crafted work of art. (stanza VII)

This whole, this cosmos or Atman or god may also be called a vis, a strength or power. It is the broadest generalization of all things, “a principle or, it may be, the meditation of a principle, an “inherent order.” It is positive in influence, “a nature to its natives all beneficence, a repose,” allowing the mind to relax, having purchase at once on itself and on all else. This may be imagined as well as “muscles of a magnet” (invisible order perceived),and the mention of muscles suggests then the figure of “a giant, on the horizon, [i.e. barely visible] glistening [yet grand].” This giant becomes the dominant image of the poem’s conclusion. (stanza VIII)

This vision is a surpassingly beautiful one “in bright excellence adorned,” “crested with . . . fire,” with “scintillant sizzlings,” “serious folds of majesty,” “trumpeting seraphs,” altogether “a source of pleasant outbursts in the ear.” (stanza IX) In spite of the fact that the mind cannot grasp his totality in any single vision, the “giant” of reality “imposes power by the power of his form.” The grand whole, the vision of the total whole lurks behind imperfect incarnations in the world and people and art though it always appears in truncated forms. (stanza X) Though barely glimpsed, this giant, “an abstraction given head” is divine, the “centre on the horizon,” god as the infinite sphere. (stanza XI)

What more can be said? By imbuing nature with passion, the individual renders it holy and redemptive, though in the end it be “nothingness,” which is to say nirvana.


That’s it.” The lover writes, the believer hears,
The poet mumbles and the painter sees,
Each one, his fated eccentricity,
As a part, but part, but tenacious particle,
Of the skeleton of the ether, the total,
Of letters, prophecies , perceptions, clods,
Of color, the giant of nothingness, each one
And the giant ever-changing, living in change. (stanza 12)


Various traditions have suggested that the glint of the divine might be discerned in any object at all: Among the more dramatic insights are the Zen assertion that “the Buddha is dried dung” [9] and the gnostic claim that Christ may be found in a split stick or under every rock. [10] Blake saw “a world in a grain of sand” and Huxley under mescaline in a vase of flowers. [11] However, none of these foci of meditation is an intentional work of art. Stevens does not say that any sight at all can lead toward the mystical giant, but rather that illumination may come through a profound gaze not on some appearance in the world but on the artist’s reception of an object. For him the connection between perceiver and perceived defines the link between microcosm and macrocosm the clear view of which has the potential for enlightenment. Stevens is developing to its furthest the late nineteenth century spiritual valorization of art and the Symbolist exploitation of underdetermined images.

The spiritual validity of Steven’s “supreme fiction” accessible through meditation on poems can only be measured by practitioners. It is certainly true that devotion has many modes to suit the sensibilities of various human consciousnesses: some advance through charity, some must be ravished by devotional rapture, others climb to the sublime on intellectual concepts, while the rituals and formulae of established religions serve the needs of most. Stevens’ poem is elegantly crafted and subtly argued: surely his method deserves a place among the rest.




1. The poem first appeared as one of John Bernard Myers’ Banyan Press series, the Prospero Pamphlets in 1948 with two drawings by Kurt Seligmann. It was republished in Steven’s 1950 volume The Auroras of Autumn. The pamphlet’s notice in the New York Times for June 27, 1948 observes that “the poem, at times, eludes understanding." and makes no mention whatever of the artist or the images.

2. See Gregory Brazeal , “The Supreme Fiction: Fiction or Fact?” for a critic’s view that Stevens failed in his quest to define such a possibility and, indeed, that the very notion arose from a misreading of William James. (Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Fall, 2007), pp. 80-100). One might wonder in what sense a fiction can be fictional.

3. Descending from Hesiod and Aristotle all the way to Derridean deconstruction.

4. Timaeus 33b.

5. In the “Dialogue on Infinity” attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, but identical or very similar formulae appear in Empedocles, Augustine, the Liber XXIV Philosophorum, Alain of Lille, Nicholas of Cusa, Pascal, and Voltaire among others.

6. Cf. Steven’s claim may derive from, though it goes beyond Kant’s notion of transcendental apperception.

7. Cf. Eliot “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

8. There is, of course, a vast mystical literature in which divine and human love are conflated: Krishna and the gopis, Mechthild von Magdeburg, Rumi, and John of the Cross, and a great many others.

9. In another passage, the Buddha is three pounds of flax. See The Gateless Gate, Cases 21 and 18,

10. Gospel of Thomas 77.

11. Doors of Perception.

Notes on Recent Reading 32 (Morrison, Cary, Kawabata)



Sula
(Morrison)

A strong narrative, redolent of the deep dream-like incident familiar in the work of American writers from the deeper South, Morrison glazes her tale with just a restrained bit of magic realism. (The three Deweys are the most unlikely, and they are merely weird. Shadrack, on the other hand, while barely plausible, is an effective image and formal element.) Incidents include murder, intentional and unintentional, promiscuity, madness, and crime against a backdrop of crushing racism. The vernacular is utterly convincing; it reads as if spoken, and the author is willing as well to construct some rhetorical passages of various sorts that contrast with the largely direct, if well-observed, language. Not merely Nel and Sula, but others from the Bottom community, and, most impressively, the community as a whole as a whole are characterized with a precision and a metaphorical gift that is little short of a marvel. I find hardly a false note, which I declare in spite of the fact that my copy blazons on its cover its selection for Oprah’s Book Club.


A Fearful Joy (Cary)

Joyce Cary’s novel, narrated in an odd present tense throughout, seems designed primarily to illustrate the changing English social context over a fifty year period from the decadent fin de siècle through the flapper era, the Depression, and World War II. Tabitha’s picaresque adventures proceed from one poor judgement to the next, though she remains afloat to the end. The concluding sentence notes her gratitude and happiness. Along the way are plenty are colorful characters, foremost among them her irresponsible husband Bonser and her equally feckless descendants. The reader will enjoy some well-observed colloquial dialogue (much of the book is conversation), parodies of the rhetoric of a variety of phonies, and satiric portraits of most human failings. Yet I, for one, was troubled by the careless with verisimilitude: how could our heroine move so rapidly from being a clueless child, easily taken advantage of, to the doyenne of a set of “advanced thinkers”? How could Bonser whose behavior is consistently self-destructive, avoid sinking the hotels in bankruptcy the first year of his involvement? Tabitha is herself a bit vacant, a passive object, tossed in the tides of history, somehow remaining upright through enough foolishness to ruin a dozen ordinary mortals. Every character is simple and unchanging, reliably exhibiting the same characteristics through a few too many pages.


Snow Country (Kawabata)

This story of love-longing and indifference unfolds in the almost unreal setting of a mountain hot springs and ski resort where the snow sometimes accumulates to fifteen feet. Western readers will perhaps be surprised at how tawdry the life of Komako, a rural geisha, seems in spite of the pretense of white powder makeup and what musical skills she has been able to gather from sheet music and recordings.

The novel is animated more by a pervading sense of mono no aware (“the pathos of things”) punctuated with regular images, sharp and lovely, that reminded the translator Edward G. Seidensticker of haiku. The frustration of the characters’ desire for love, impossible from the start for both social and psychological reasons, is reflected in their thoughtless treatment of each other as well as in repeated references to the uncertainty of their feelings. Shimamura’s peculiar devotion to information about Western dance though he has never seen a performance is perhaps the most precise analogue for much of the story’s emotional content. The pathos which had been powerful throughout is multiplied in the dramatic closing scene of fire.

The diffident plotting and resultant lack of narrative structure is perhaps unsurprising when the reader learns that the book grew from a short story, expanded with subsequent sketches, and found first full-length form when seven pieces were combined and a conclusion written in 1937. Kawabata kept reworking the material until publishing it in the present form in 1947. Remaining unsatisfied, the author composed a version of only a few pages which was included under the title "Gleanings from Snow Country" in his 1968 Palm-of-the-Hand Stories. This I have not read, but considering the dominance of tone in the work, that version may be the definitive one.


Kurt Seligmann and the Poets


I. Kurt Seligmann and Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens’ business career may obscure his lifelong association with avant-garde artistic groupings. Associated before WWI with the New York Arensburg circle that received Picabia and developed into an American Dada formation, he studied Picasso and Matisse tirelessly and was significantly influenced by Cubism and Surrealism. [1]

Seligmann’s drawings for Wallace Stevens’ “A Primitive like an Orb” represent a thematic concern of great moment to both painter and poet. At the same time as Seligmann was conducting far-reaching studies in occultism and the kabbalah and pursuing the potential of art to fulfil the historic role of magic and indeed of religion, Stevens was developing his idea of art as religious practice and god as a “supreme fiction” with the potential to replace revealed religion which had, he thought, become untenable for moderns.

For Seligmann only religious language is adequate to the higher aspirations of art. He refers, for instance, to artistic creation not as mere imitation but rather as a “mysterious transubstantiation.” [2] Seligmann speaks of the word (or cosmic laughter, or, one might add, the image) that “was the motor to creation.” The work of art seeks thus to render visible the “intercourse between the limited and the limitless.” In this way “boundless time and the time of human history reflect one another.” [3] Art is to him “impregnated with magic” specifically because it leads to the “world order to which everything the big and the small, the distant and the close submits.” For him the “fundamental theory of all superior magic” is that “all is contained in all.” [4] The “Cabalah” resembles art in that it points toward unity in variety, linking the particular and the universal. [5]

These ideas are wholly consistent with Stevens’ claim in “A Primitive like an Orb” that, through the process of “apperception” the poet can fix “the essential poem at the centre of things” and render this vision of Ultimate Reality more accessible to human consciousness. Stevens’ attitude toward the “supreme fiction” -- “it Is and is not and, therefore, is” -- mirrors Seligmann’s willful sympathy with magic. To Stevens the “central poem,” what becomes the giant of the cosmos, is revealed by “sharp informations,” which presumably may be couched in words or in images.

Seligmann produced images for Stevens’ poems by a process similar to that by which he made a mythological series following his work on costumes for Menotti’s ballet The Unicorn,The Gorgon, and The Manticore about which he said “Independent of my costume project – yet stimulated by it, I painted and drew these canvases, my own mythology.” [6]

The first illustration is clearly situated in imagination, neither realistic nor abstract. The figure represents a take on reality, a recorded state of consciousness, a poem or painting. It is immediately recognizable as Seligmann’s, strutting with assurance and posing even as decomposition seems have to have set in long ago. The gaiety of the carnivalesque ribands is balanced by the frightening ax, shield, and scaly armor. As a take on reality the image can serve for any work of art, asserting itself in the desolate landscape of human powerlessness. Its three legs may seem a secure support but also suggest an uncertain trajectory just as the dynamic points and lines about the head imply attention in every direction as well as confusion.

One might imagine the second illustration to be Stevens’ giant and an observer though they are clothed in the same graceful forms reminiscent of cut paper. Again, the figures are phantom-like, only their drapery is drawn. The larger figure is posed as though showing itself off, its surfaces ornamented with sketchy patterns suggesting elaborate decoration on a grand gown topped by an imposing hat though remnants of the armor are visible implying the figure’s androgynous universality. Meanwhile the smaller figure, far simpler in pattern and modest in attitude watches, its moon-like crescent-shaped head directed toward the other. The landscape has vanished. One sees nothing but observer and observed.

While either the drawings might stand alone as the poem certainly may, they also enhance and reinforce each other with a rich suggestivity born of their creators’ similar spiritual quests in these belated modern times. Both found religious revelation and authority had become irrelevant yet neither therefore abandoned searching for enlightenment.

Stevens says in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” that he conceives “the thinker of the first idea” and witnesses “apotheosis.” Though “Phoebus is dead,” in fact “Phoebus was a name for what never could be named” and “the poet is always in the sun.” Seligmann depicts in graphic form the lineaments of Reality similarly convinced that truth is accessible only through the senses and the mind and that art can “corporealize a world system,” [7] and renew spirituality in whatever we might call the era that succeeds the age of anxiety.


1. Though his admiration was qualified. “The essential fault of surrealism is that it invents without discovering. To make a clam play an accordion is to invent not to discover. The observation of the unconscious, so far as it can be observed, should reveal things of which we have previously been unconscious, not the familiar things of which we have been conscious plus imagination.” Wallace Stevens, Collected Poetry & Prose (Library of America, NYC, 1997), p. 919.

2. Page 21 (Seligmann’s typescript page 5), Artist Canvas Reality, a lecture of Kurt Seligmann (Seligmann Center, Sugar Loaf, 2016).

3. Page 4, talk 11 on the topic of Space, a lecture of Kurt Seligmann, forthcoming from the Seligmann Center for the Arts.

4. Page 19 (Seligmann’s typescript page 4), Cave of Montesinos, a lecture of Kurt Seligmann on Magic, Seligmann Center, Sugar Loaf, 2017).

5. Page 21 (Seligmann’s typescript page 5), Cave of Montesinos, a lecture of Kurt Seligmann on Magic, Seligmann Center, Sugar Loaf, 2017).

6. From Kurt Seligmann, “My Mythology,” in the Weinstein Gallery catalogue, Kurt Seligmann: First Message from the Spirit World of the Object, Weinstein Gallery, San Francisco, 2015) p.128.

7. Page 4, talk 11 on the topic of Space, a lecture of Kurt Seligmann, forthcoming from the Seligmann Center for the Arts.





II. Seligmann’s Illustrations of Poetry


Apart from his paintings and graphic work, Kurt Seligmann produced as well costumes, set designs, and prints for poetry books. In this last category, he illustrated writers regarded as ancestors of Surrealism (Lautréamont and Mallarmé), those active in Surrealist circles (Courthion, Collet, Breton, Hugnet, Goll, Calas, Roditi), including two whose association with Surrealism was not more tangential (Herz and Stevens), and he influenced as well, though they never collaborated on a publication, the American Surrealist Philip Lamantia.

A chronological list of Seligmann’s illustrations for poetry follows. I would, of course, welcome additions or corrections. My sources are primarily Stephen E. Hauser’s Kurt Seligmann 1900-1962 and the Weinstein Gallery publication Kurt Seligmann: First Message from the Spirit World of the Object. My few comments on these works are unconnected, though I believe that Seligmann thought all the writers shared his vision at least in part. The thematic and stylistic relations I have traced in “Kurt Seligmann and Wallace Stevens” are potentially present for each of the others.


1. Seligmann’s collection of fifteen etchings Les Vagabondages Heraldiques (Editions des Chroniques du Jour, Paris, 1934) is introduced by prose poetry by art historian Pierre Courthion.

2. Breton invited Seligmann to join eleven other Surrealist artists in illustrating a new edition of Comte de Lautréamont’s Chants de Maldoror (G.L.M., Paris, 1938). Among the other artists who contributed to this volume were Max Ernst, René Magritte, Joan Miró, Man Ray, and Yves Tanguy. Assigned the first song, Seligmann produced a fierce and skeletal figure reflecting the influence of his Renaissance fellow-countryman Urs Graf.

3. Three rather abstract etchings (one with aquatint) of curving organic and drapery forms by Seligmann were included in an edition of Jean-Paul Collet’s 1935 publication of love poems Flaques (Les écrivains réunis series, Paris, 1935). In Hauser’s opinion (119-120) these “solipsistic” images, some suggesting “mating behavior” have little to do with the poetic text, but do form a coherent transition in the development of Seligmann’s prints.

4. Pierre Courthion’s prose poems are accompanied by Kurt Seligmann’s engravings in Métiers des Hommes (Editions Guy Levis Mano, Paris, 1936).

5. Seligmann engraved a frontispiece for André Breton’s Dreams according to the Weinstein catalogue. This is apparently identical with Trajectoire du rêve (or Trajectory of Dream, Editions Guy Levis Mano, Paris 1938).

6. Seligmann contributed a set of ink drawings for Une Écriture lisible (A Readable Writing) by Georges Hugnet, the graphic artist and poet (Editions des Chroniques du Jour, Paris, 1938). Hauser considers this to be a harmonious collaboration (140)and mentions that Seligmann had composed a message to Breton criticizing him for ousting Hugnet from Surrealism, but never sent it. (177)

7. Ivan Goll’s Jean sans terre (Tandem & Nierendorf, NYC, 1940) contained an etched plate by Kurt Seligmann. The French-German author had associated with the original Zurich Dadaists and later, as an exile in New York edited Hémispheres, a journal that published Césaire and Breton as well as young Americans. The poem had been released four years earlier as La chanson de Jean sans terre with pictures by Chagall. Seligmann depicts a striding figure with hair and drapes in the air, pierced and impaled, fleshless, with vertebrae and ribs visible, apparently an image of John Lackland, whose wandering is another version of the type of the Wandering Jew on which Goll had been writing for years.

8. Seligmann made a frontispiece for an edition of Stéphane Mallarmé’s Hérodiade (The Press of James A. Decker, Prairie City IL, 1940). One may assume this to be Seligmann’s homage to the Symbolists as an influence. His image is appropriately hermetic and underdetermined: wheels revolve through space while water spumes from a fountain to a kind of side sky-roof while only the void occupies the center.

9. Seligmann’s frontispiece appears in Edouard Roditi’s Prison Within Prison: Three Elegies on Hebrew Themes (The Press of James A. Decker Prairie City IL, 1941). Roditi had abandoned Classics studies at Oxford to become a Surrealist, and this association as well as his themes of exile from a Jewish perspective doubtless appealed to Seligmann.

10. William Carlos Williams’ translation of Nicolas Calas’ Wrested from Mirrors included an etching by Seligmann in a limited edition folio published by the Nierendorf Gallery in NYC in 1941.

11. Seligmann produced a series of eleven drawings for his friend Nat Herz’s book Impossible Landscapes. Herz’s work was heavily influenced by Surrealism thought he also practiced photojournalism and become well-known for pictures of progressive social movements. (1944 but it did not appear until 1999 when Herz’s widow Barbara Singer published it). The entire volume is viewable at http://www.barbarasinger.com/rp_ks_1.html#2.

12. Seligmann contributed an engraving in a soft rococo style reminiscent of 17th century title pages, overflowing with portentous images (a snake with the crescent moon in its mouth, a sickle striking a cross, an open heart at the base, prominently featuring the name Lucifer) as frontispiece for Bréton’s Pleine Marge (Nierendorf Gallery, NYC, 1943). The poem had been originally published with other illustrations in 1940.

13. Wallace Stevens “A Primitive like an Orb” was published as a separate volume (Banyan Press: A Prospero Pamphlet, NYC, 1948) with two drawings by Seligmann. The series was edited by John Bernard Myers and associated with View magazine. The New York Times notice did not mention the artist. See my “Kurt Seligmann and Wallace Stevens.”

At the age of fifteen in 1943 American poet Philip Lamantia wrote Breton declaring his allegiance to Surrealism and Marxism. He was immediately accepted by Breton and his poems were published that year in View and in 1944 in VVV. He discovered common interests with Seligmann in alchemy and the occult, and the elder artist influenced his poetry.