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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Friday, December 1, 2017

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

The Atheist’s Tragedy (Tourneur)

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

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

Headlong Hall and Nightmare Abbey (Peacock)

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

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

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

Journey without Maps (Greene)

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

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

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

The Artist as Demiurge: Seligmann on Space

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

Unattributed quotations are from the present lecture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Range of Visual Poetry

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

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) with 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)


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.

Friday, September 1, 2017

On Marinetti’s Avant-Garde Fascism

Since the Romantic era innovative artistic programs have often been associated with the left wing of politics. From the radicalism of Shelley and Blake, Whitman and Zola, through the anarchists and communists of Dada and Surrealism up to the present day, most artists and a forteriori those who consider themselves avant-garde have challenged the status quo from a progressive perspective. [1] (Indeed, in the news this morning is the announcement that President Trump will not attend the Kennedy Center arts award ceremony due to his fear of hostility from those being honored.) Yet some artists have been equally fierce militants from the right. Going beyond the casual sexism, anti-Semitism, and class bias so common in writers of a broad range of viewpoints, Marinetti was a founder of Italian fascism, Céline a virulent Nazi sympathizer, Pound a propagandist for Mussolini, and Mishima an imperialist militarist. At the same time each of these might also be called, to one extent or another, a revolutionary in art. [2]

It is not difficult to assume a natural link between progressive views and powerful art. Art, after all, is based on imaginatively experiencing another’s consciousness and, in a sense, “trying out” other people’s experiences and emotions. Art, like science, requires a receptive and open mind. The themes of art often encourage a broad-based sympathetic understanding that goes well beyond tolerance. Because fascist artists and artistic movements are thus anomalous, their origins seem well worth investigating, especially in the present historical moment. The most significant explicitly fascist artist of the twentieth century is perhaps Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, whose loyalty to Mussolini was no less steady than his influence in poetry and visual art. [3]

Marinetti’s dedication to the Italian fascist movement has problematized readers’ consumption of his work and that of his movement. Though he was obliged to separate his political and artistic programs once the fascists were in power and decided they preferred the same sort of kitschy “wholesome” art their Nazi associates liked, the poet was in fact, a founder of Italian fascism. He, with Mussolini and the syndicalist Alceste De Ambris [4], wrote the party’s founding document, the 1919 “Manifesto dei fasci italiani di combattimento” (“Manifesto of the Italian Fasci of Combat”).

Marinetti’s “Futurist Manifesto” (1909) makes little direct reference to politics. Much of it is little different from the many other manifestoes of modernism. The reader finds the usual call to do away with the old and introduce the new. [5] There is, however, a curious and significantly different enthusiasm as well that one might label a fascist sensibility. When Marinetti says, “I stretched out on my car like a corpse on its bier” [6] the reader is put on warning.

At first the language is not so transgressive. Marinetti celebrates “the love of danger,” and insists “except in struggle, there is no more beauty. No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece. Poetry must be conceived as a violent attack on unknown forces, to reduce and prostrate them before man.” The emphasis on action is underlined by violent associations. “Up to now literature has exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy, and sleep. We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap.”

This is all very well, but the praise of death recurs in the manifesto with a persistence unparalleled in any statement of Dada or Surrealism. After an opening when the speaker and his associates, a fevered group of young intellectuals not unlike the coterie evoked by Howl, one finds that rather than “burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” Marinetti and his friends “like young lions . . . ran after Death.” Ignoring the ambiguity of whether the young lions are thought to run after their own death or that of their prey, the reader can only wonder at this extraordinary reversal of conventional values.

The proto-fascist Futurist explicates, but his comments do not seem to help. “There was nothing to make us wish for death, unless the wish to be free at last from the weight of our courage!” He imagines a fight to the death with mysterious antagonists. “They’ll storm around us, panting with scorn and anguish, and all of them, exasperated by our proud daring, will hurtle to kill us, driven by a hatred the more implacable the more their hearts will be drunk with love and admiration for us. ”An explicitly erotic aura seems somehow to accumulate about mortality. [t] “Death, domesticated, met me at every turn, gracefully holding out a paw, or once in a while hunkering down, making velvety caressing eyes at me from every puddle.”

Yet he does describe this Todestrieb in social motives terms, culminating in a shocking declaration: “We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.”[7] In the end “art, in fact, can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice.”

Though poetry celebrating war is as old as poetry itself, this formulation is unprecedented. The aestheticization of violence is ancient, but it had in the past not been glorified to the exclusion of other elements. The nineteenth century anarchists such as Most, Bakunin, and Kropotkin cultivated a taste for the propaganda of the deed and probably the most direct influence from the social realm on Marinetti’s attitude is that of the left syndicalist Georges Sorel (who in fact admired Mussolini as well as Lenin). [8] Sorel had insisted in his 1908 “Reflections on Violence” that “proletarian violence, carried on as a pure and simple manifestation of the sentiment of class struggle, appears thus as a very fine and heroic thing.” [9]

Apart from racism, chauvinism, censorship, and militarism, fascism is generally associated with a radically contrarian values including the celebration of violence, even of death. One thinks of the slogan of the Legión Española “¡Viva el muerte!” Its members described themselves as novios de la muerte ("bridegrooms of death"). Similarly, the SS used a skull and bones as insignia. The division that administered the death camps was in fact named the Totenkopfverbände (Death’s Head units).

Similar imagery -- skulls as well as signs suggesting Satanism and fascism -- can be found among prison inmates, outlaw bikers, and heavy metal enthusiasts. For these subcultures it is surely the shock value, the ability of these symbols to disturb the general population, rather than any specific allegiance to Nazism or diabolism that underlies this usage. Hooligan skinheads may ape fascist gestures while hardly knowing what they mean. Examples of this posture, taken to the point of caricature, include Aleister Crowley and his epigone Anton LaVey. Parallel phenomena include the role of heroin in, first the jazz scene and later in the Beat movement and the music of the Velvet Underground, novels of Will Self, and, of all things, the “heroin chic” of nineties fashion photography. [10]

The most significant parallel in art to this predilection for death is the tradition rising from the confluence of the Romantic love-death in Werther with such rebellious quasi-Satanic anti-heros as Byron’s Manfred, Lautréamont’s Maldoror, and Baudelaire. Why, after all, are the flowers evil?

Perhaps someone knows what it can mean, after all, when Marinetti says that art “can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice.” The first has, of course, always been a component of human psyches and human art; the second was developed by Artaud into a coherent theory; the third I can understand only as an oblique way of saying that the imagination is stimulated by suffering. But how any of these notions could support Marinetti’s other theoretical writings [11] or the actual poems and paintings of Italian Futurism is to me a mystery. It would be simple to play psychologist with Marinetti’s peculiar ideas about women, but such speculation is irrelevant to his art.

Thus it is perhaps not merely uneasiness when confronting taboos that explains the difficulty contemporary readers have with the theory of Italian Futurism. If Marinetti’s ideas do not even fertilize the rich artistic practice associated with his movement, it may be simply because they are adventitious. Truly fascist art is recorded in Germany and in Italy and it resembles nothing so much as the productions of Stalinism and Maoism: reductive, conventional, sentimental, and shallow, with little to interest those other than true believers. [12]

Marinetti’s manifesto is better considered as a literary rather than a philosophical document. The compelling power of the circumstances into which he places his strident claims – the automobile crash in the original manifesto and the airplane ride in the manifesto on writing – establishes a memorable and effective dramatic context. His assertions are expressive of the mood, the sensibility of his reaction to the historic moment. Rather than statements of serious aesthetic theory, he is writing poems. His “Futurist Manifesto” broke new ground, establishing in fact a new genre of literature, and set the pattern for many to follow. He is most fruitfully read not for ideas but for his boisterous rhetoric.

His language remains not merely vigorous but suggestive and even eloquent. Toward the end of the “Futurist Manifesto,” after the speaker has overturned his car after facing the dialectical motorcyclists, he rises and cries out, “O maternal ditch, almost full of muddy water! Fair factory drain! I gulped down your nourishing sludge; and I remembered the blessed black breast of my Sudanese nurse… When I came up—torn, filthy, and stinking—from under the capsized car, I felt the white-hot iron of joy deliciously pass through my heart!” This montage of imagery is rich in connotation, engendering widening waves of semiotic association, but the images make sense only in the most oblique, self-contradictory fashion. The reader who seeks a logical, even a persuasive program will be disappointed.

1. It seems in fact scarcely debatable that the professariat as well as the intelligentsia in general, are distinctly liberal, while the uneducated, unfortunately, chose our current President Trump.

2. For fuller scholarly accounts of the relationship between fascism and the avant-garde see Mark Antliff’s Avant-Garde Fascism: The Mobilization of Myth, Art, and Culture in France, 1909–1939 and Andrew Hewitt’s Fascist Modernism: Aesthetics, Politics, and the Avant-garde.

3. Pound had perhaps even more profound influence, but his Social Credit theories had an indirect relation to fascism in spite of his attempt to serve fascist Italy.

4. Alceste De Ambris had been a major organizer of the agrarian strike of 1908. As a “national syndicalist” he supported Italy’s entry into WWI. He soon became disillusioned with the fascists, however, eventually entering into active opposition until his citizenship was withdrawn and he was driven into exile in 1926.

5. Laurent Tailhade is reputed to have stated, after Auguste Vaillant bombed the Chamber of Deputies in 1893: "Qu'importent les victimes, si le geste est beau?" ["What do the victims matter, so long as the gesture is beautiful"]. In 1929 André Breton's "Second Manifesto" stated that "L’acte surréaliste le plus simple consiste, revolvers aux poings, à descendre dans la rue et à tirer au hasard, tant qu’on peut, dans la foule" [The simplest Surrealist act consists of running down into the street, pistols in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd]." On a similar topic see my “The Inconsequential Bayonets of Art: Militant Rhetoric and the Avant-Garde” on this site.

6. Has anyone noted the anticipation of the opening of “Prufrock” with its “patient etherized on a table”?

7. Marinetti was explicitly anti-feminist and quite consciously misogynistic.

8. See Sorel’s March 1921 conversations with Jean Variot, published in Variot’s Propos de Georges Sorel, (1935) Paris, pp. 53-57, 66-86 passim.

9. Sorel also became, after supporting Dreyfus, a virulent anti-Semite.

10. In the eighties, when grunge was big, my wife knew a young lad who liked to play music shirtless and carefully applied makeup to his chest to create the illusion of an unhealthy sunken chest. This is not far distant from the nineteenth century view of tuberculosis as beautiful. Byron said “I should like, I think, to die of consumption.” (See Katherine Byrne's Tuberculosis and the Victorian Literary Imagination. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2011.) Poe said in “Philosophy of Composition” that “the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.”

11. His “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature,” for instance, has seemingly nothing to do with death or violence or fascism. Instead, apart from calling on Futurist poets to “hate the intelligence” [emphasis in original], it consists of such curious proposals as the abolition of the adjective and adverb and all punctuation. The “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting” likewise seems unconnected to Marinetti’s politics or his obsessions.

12. In his speech for the opening of the “Degenerate Art” exhibit on July 18 1937, Hitler could sound something like an avant-gardist: “I am going to make a clean sweep of phrases in the artistic life of Germany,” but he looks only backwards, endorsing “healthy,” easily understandable art.

This and That

I know the title is what one would expect from the local news reporter for a small town Midwestern newspaper listing church rummage sales and fiftieth anniversaries, but I am resolved to use it anyway. For me, though I suspect for no one else, it carries a bit of association with a book, a thrift store curiosity I remember fondly though I discarded it years ago titled This Way and That that consisted of examples for British students’ test preparation not only of translations from the Greek and Latin classics, but also versions of, for instance, Milton made into Latin (not too great a leap there) and Shakespeare in Attic Greek. What a wonderfully demanding, utterly superfluous skill! Does anyone now learn to translate into the languages of the Classics? Not four decades ago I witnessed an academic panel that presented and discussed research papers entirely in Latin. Could one still convene such a group?
My direct inspiration, though, is the Japanese zuihitsu genre the most well-known of which is the marvelous Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. Yoshida Kenko’s Essays in Idleness is a later example. My own reading and writing are so desultory that I believe the form may fit me well. Only when I’ve written a few dozen pages will I know. If so, this feature may recur.

Rereading Thomas Love Peacock I find myself as pleased with his name as his books. The “Peacock” is grand enough, but “Love” as a middle name makes it irresistible while “Thomas” keeps it plausible. Surely he was fated to attain Romantic celebrity whether he aimed to do so or not. I am put in mind of sitting in the Old English classroom of Prof. Rainbow whose very name seemed to spread a soft and charming light over the rasping consonants and willed fortitude of those old poems almost fifty years ago.

In my cupboard for spices and herbs is a small tin of asafoetida with a cobra rising to meet the cook. I sometimes add a grain or two to my Indian dishes. The brown balls of dry congealed gum are apparently a lifetime supply. Among its vernacular names are devil’s dung and Teufelsdreck. Though known for its disagreeable odor, this latex or oleoresin from the root of the Ferula (a cousin of the carrot) is said to lend the flavor of leeks to cooked food. I cannot say that my own taste can perceive this subtle flavor, but I add it anyway. It is too strong for some as it is one of the five vegetable foods avoided by some East Asian Buddhists along with several varieties of garlic and onion. Such foods were thought to excite desire in a way in compatible with enlightenment.

I sometimes think that Manhattanites are among the most provincial of Americans. When I taught at L.I.U. in Brooklyn, the English Department had thirteen professors, eleven of whom were native New Yorkers. Virtually all of them had also attended university in the city. Saul Steinberg’s celebrated New Yorker cover showed the nation foreshortened almost out of existence on the west side of the Hudson. This was not merely a joke. It used to be that people who lived in Manhattan rarely even ventured to Brooklyn, but that has changed.

I cannot accept the current use of the word “hipster,” today used to describe the affluent young who are busy gentrifying Brooklyn. Are these not the same people, though possibly with the camouflage of enhanced facial hair, who used to be called yuppies? In the fifties the hipster was on the edge – see Mailer’s “The White Negro” for evidence – whereas today’s crop care primarily, so far as I know, for elaborate espresso drinks.

We appreciate the marvelous beauty of nature, admiring an Insect’s anatomy, the veining of a leaf or the branching of a tree, an irregularly shaped rock, or the movements of a house cat. To what extent is such pleasure distinct from that derived from the contemplation of works of art? While it is true that art may seem set apart from nature due to its intentionality – absent from a sunset unless one considers some deity as the artist – perhaps in the reception of a work by Mozart, Delacroix, or Sir Philip Sidney, one is simply admiring the structure of that other consciousness, itself as “natural” as everything that exists must be.

Why are so many of the people at left-wing demonstrations today so old? In the sixties most activists were my age then, but today it seems still to be my cohort that is keeping alive the hope of progressive change. Age seems even more a selector at artistic events. From the rear of the hall it is often a sea of white hair at chamber music concerts and plays and poetry readings. Public television ever since Upstairs, Downstairs has run utterly commercial dramas lacking in artistic ambition while “non-commercial” radio does publicity for commercial rock and rollers and television programs. In this era are all art lovers old fogeys?

Near my home is a warning sign for a school zone with the familiar silhouettes of a boy and a shorter girl carrying books. Though the year is 2017, the boy is wearing knickerbockers. Now, I was born in 1946 and such pants were never part of my experience. They appear in thirties movies, so I imagine the cataclysm of the war may have altered this fashion as it did many others. I doubt that the sign I see on my daily biking is seventy-five years old. It seems odd that this iconic image enjoys such longevity. It reminds me of the ink-wells on the right corner of my elementary school desks, though dipping a pen into ink struck me even then as archaic. These were long shadows cast by the past like my father’s uniform hanging in our attic, and a few ragged comic books I somehow acquired from the years before I was born, featuring Joe Palooka and the Blackhawks battling Nazis, the most vicious of villains.