Saturday, August 31, 2013

An Elegy for Seamus Heaney

Yesterday we heard the sad news of the death of Seamus Heaney. Today we have this, an elegy for Heaney by my friend and mentor John Matthias, which appears here with his kind permission. It takes its form—in meter and in rhyme—from the third section of W.H. Auden's great elegy for W.B. Yeats, which Heaney also used in his poem "Audenesque," an elegy for his friend, the poet Joseph Brodsky. Ultimately, this form of elegy, its iambic tetrameter truncated by the omission of the initial unstressed syllable, goes back to Shakespeare's "The Phoenix and the Turtle," a kind of elegy for the death of love. But this is no occasion for my pedantry—so let's have Matthias' poetry instead:

Elegy for Seamus Heaney Seamus felt it in his feet, Clods of fuel in the peat. In the peat a fire to warm Children not yet even born. Joseph Brodsky was his friend. Wystan Auden would amend Dances William Blake would like, Tigers lurking in the night. Metric feet and feet in boots – Robert Lowell was shown his roots Welcomed in an Irish town Where the sky was falling down. Mister Yeats was dead by then Honored by some mortal men Heaney his example took, Brooding sky and flying rook. Even Possum shares the beat In Joseph’s poem for Thomas Stearns. Heaney’s poem for Brodsky, dead, Lives in turns, not Grecian urns. What dread turning plow or spade Having dug up things well made Digs now to inter a shade. World poets learn your trade!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

T.S. Eliot and the Vanishing Brahmin

Hot news -- the new issue of the Battersea Review is out, and available online!

It's got poetry by John Tranter, Alfred Corn, Peter Robinson, Katia Kapovich, and many others, as well as new translations of Georg Trakl, Sophocles, Pushkin, and Mandelshtam.

You'll also find essays on Harvard & Yale poetry culture, Wallace Stevens, Federico Garcia Lorca, Romanticism, and more -- including my essay "T.S. Eliot and the Vanishing Brahmin."  Check it out!

Many thanks to U.S. Dhuga and Ben Mazer for putting it all together, and for running the most intelligent and eclectic literary journal of the decade.


Here's the first paragraph of my essay:

"Noblesse oblige," wrote E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post, "sounds bad until you don't have it any more." Dionne's point was that the American elite no longer seems much interested in legitimating its position by undertaking the kind of social and cultural leadership to which earlier elites had devoted themselves. Dionne's sentiment is apt for our times, but it would have been equally germane to the America in which T.S. Eliot came of age, an America in which an old elite headquartered in Boston found itself shunted aside by a rougher sort altogether: the Carnegies and Fricks and Morgans and Rockefellers, and the equally ruthless men whose stories Lincoln Steffens told in The Shame of the Cities, men who made an art of turning public resources into private profit in the burgeoning metropolises of the nation. Eliot's class, the old Boston Brahmins, with their patrician scruples about fair dealing and community leadership and responsibility, didn't stand a chance, and their decline mattered immensely to Eliot. Indeed, the decay of Eliot's class of origin would prove crucial to his Anglophilia, his poetics, and even to his love of etymology.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Old School Tie: Privilege and the Literature of the 30s

The first thing you notice, when you start reading the canonical literature of the generation of English writers who came of age in the 1930s, is their seeming inability to actually come of age.  Everywhere one finds images of school, schoolboys, school games, school prize days.  And by everywhere, I do mean everywhere.  These images aren't confined to memoirs of childhood, though there are plenty of those: they're used even to describe the most pressing problems of a world entering a state of deep political and economic crisis.  Could any other generation have produced something like Auden's Orators, where the state of the world is just the state of the English public school writ large?

One kind of explanation for the schoolboy poetic comes when we see the remarkable similarity of background of the prominent writers of the generation.  W.H. Auden, Cyril Connolly, Stephen Spender, John Betjeman, Edward Upward, Cecil Day Lewis, Christopher Isherwood, Louis MacNeice, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, George Orwell, Anthony Powell—the only real difference in their educational background (besides Orwell's refusal to go on to Oxbridge) was the degree of prestige associated with their respective public schools in the subtle hierarchy of English education.  Not one was a grammar school boy.  This, it should be noted, is an unusual state of affairs in English literature, one without precedent, and one not repeated in later generations.  Consider the prominent writers active in England 1915, while the writers named above were still in school.  Yeats, Conrad, Shaw, Joyce, Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, Pound, Eliot, H.G. Wells, Kipling—a few went to English public schools (Ford, Kipling, Lewis for a time), but some (Conrad, Yeats, Pound, Eliot) were foreigners, others were from humbler backgrounds (notably Wells and Lawrence), some were both (Shaw, Joyce) and Woolf was excluded by gender from the schoolboy experience.  Consider the prominent writers in England today, and the diversity is all the more striking.

Why, one wonders, was there such a concentration of public school old boys in the literary generation of the 1930s?  What drove them to become writers at a higher rate than previous generations from similar backgrounds?  Here we enter the realm of speculation.  My sense of things is that there may be something akin to the nineteenth century Parisian phenomenon at work.  For much of the nineteenth century in France, the social and educational system produced far too much talent for the social system to absorb.  Respectable professions such as the law, the clergy, finance, and politics couldn't take on all of the bright young men seeking places, and this contributed to the enormous growth in the field of culture—writing, the arts, and the bohemia that came along with them.  In the England of the 1930s, the generation of public schoolboys faced a destroyed economy and much-reduced prospects.  They were deprived of the areas of action and fulfillment available to previous generations with similar backgrounds.  Along with this displacement came a sense of alienation from the ideology of leadership and service with which they had been instilled.  They had, then, both motive and opportunity (or, shall we say, lack of opportunity) enough to become writers: critical of their time, needing to rethink the relation of self and society, equipped with exquisite educations, and unable to get traction in fields of social leadership, they took up their pens.

Of course there were many English writers of the time who did not come from the same sorts of school background as the Audens and Isherwoods.  What of them?  What of Julian Symons, Christopher Caudwell, Derek Savage, George Barker, and a host of others?  One could make an argument along the lines of "well, they weren't as good, were they?" but this would be highly contentious.  Read a few George Barker poems side by side with some of Spender's and tell me the case for the superiority of the public schoolboy remains clear.  A more convincing case could be made for the relative lack of social capital among the non-public school set.  That is: even though they may have been denied the easy entry into positions of security and authority that they had thought their birthright, the public schoolboys were still as a whole better connected socially, more financially secure, less burdened by family obligations, and held more impressive academic credentials than their peers from humbler backgrounds.  Moreover, they had formed very close bonds with their peers at school—one of the main functions of prestigious boarding schools, and one that ensured the career-building value of the old school tie.  This gave them a stronger starting position in the race for literary reputation.

Early advantages, as every investor knows, have a tendency to become still greater advantages as time goes by.  If the public schoolboys entered the field of literature at an advantage over others, that advantaged only increased as their concerns and stylistic ticks (such as the prevalence of public school imagery) became identified as the markings of a whole generation of writers—as part became taken for whole.  This happened in the self-mythologizing of the public school writers, in their mutually-admiring critical writing, memoirs, and romans-à-clef, and it has continued to happen in the scholarly writing about the period.  Here, for example, is the opening paragraph of Bernard Bergonzi's excellent study Reading the Thirties, which shows far more self-awareness about the process of taking part for whole than do most similar documents:

This book is not about all of the literature written in England between 1930 and 1940.  In the title, and throughout the book, I use the term 'the thirties' in the same deliberately selective fashion that made it possible for Edward Upward to give the all-embracing title In the Thirties to a retrospective novel about the progress of a young poet and schoolmaster from bourgeois individualism to the Communist Party which restricted itself to a dozen or so characters.  Despite the narrowness of the range, Stephen Spender could still call Upward's novel 'the most truthful picture of life in that decade.'  In the present book I do not intend 'the thirties' to mean just a period, but also to refer generically to a group of writers and the work they produced in that decade, occasionally later.  Indeed, 'the thirties' in this sense largely corresponds to… 'the Auden generation.'

I cherish the works of Auden, I read the works of Isherwood with a hearty appetite, I ransack Spender's journals for gems of gossip and social observation.  But I try not to forget that both the achievement and the prominence of those writers rests on a bedrock of privilege, albeit of privilege displaced from the realm of power to the realm of art.

Monday, August 12, 2013

John Steinbeck's Hamburgers and Other Culinary Offenses of American Literature

John Steinbeck was a whiz in front of a typewriter, but don't ever let him don the paper cap of a fry cook.  And keep Hemingway away from your camp stove, people.  Your whiskey too—but that's another story, and one we've heard told many times.  

Consider this passage from The Grapes of Wrath, in which Steinbeck—with no condemnation and, indeed, with apparent admiration—describes the desecration of ground beef:

He presses down a hissing hamburger with his spatula. He lays the split buns on the plate to toast and heat. He gathers up stray onions from the plate and heaps them on the meat and presses them in with the spatula. He puts half the bun on top of the meat, paints the other half with melted butter, with thin pickle relish. Holding the bun on the meat, he slips the spatula under the thin pad of meat, flips it over, lays the buttered half on top, and drops the hamburger on a small plate. Quarter of a dill pickle, two black olives beside the sandwich… And he scrapes his griddle with the spatula and looks moodily at the stew kettle.

I'm all for grilled onions, warming a bun and, since the hamburger-eater has pretty much surrendered the cholesterol high-ground already, buttering things up in the manner of that finest of midwestern hamburger chains, Culver's (which also understands the virtues of the loose-packing 'smash technique' of patty making).  But no way, no where, no how, should anyone, ever, under any circumstances, press a hamburger flat with a spatula, as Steinbeck's hapless fry cook does not once but twice under the approving eye of the third person omniscient narrator, whose omniscience clearly does not extend into the area of burger frying.  One could point to any number of authoritative sources forbidding the practice, but I prefer to turn to a conversation thread on Chowhound, where the question was raised: just why do people insist on adding extra labor to the cooking process, only to dry their burgers out?  One "MartinDC" replied with what must certainly be the truth of the matter.  Why do these frycooks-manqué go nuts with the spatula?  "No reason," says our correspondent, 

...other than the guy cooking them has seen other guys doing it. Also, there are cooks who like to play with the food while it's cooking -- like busy work (a corollary to this are people who stir the pot too much). It's hard for some people to just step back and watch the magic happen by itself.

There's the sad truth of it.  I imagine gender comes into play, and that there's some kind of male tool-handling impulse underway that only Freud could explain, but until my research grant comes in, I just don't have enough ground round stored away to put the theory to a statistically valid test.

We probably shouldn't be surprised that Steinbeck was deficient in his culinary skills.  He was, after all, the man who wrote of the beer milkshake, without including the word "abomination" anywhere in the description.  The matter comes up twice in Cannery Row.  In the first instance, one has hope for Steinbeck, because he evinces appropriate levels of shame and trepidation:

In Monterey before he even started, he felt hungry and stopped at Herman’s for a hamburger and beer. While he ate his sandwich and sipped his beer, a bit of conversation came back to him. Blaisedell, the poet, had said to him, “You love beer so much. I’ll bet some day you’ll go in and order a beer milk shake.” It was a simple piece of foolery but it had bothered Doc ever since. He wondered what a beer milk shake would taste like. The idea gagged him a bit but he couldn’t let it alone. It cropped up every time he had a glass of beer. Would it curdle like milk? Would you add sugar? It was like a shrimp ice cream. Once the thing got into your head you couldn’t forget it.  He finished his sandwich and paid Herman. He purposely didn’t look at the milk shake machines lined up so shiny against the back wall. If a man ordered a beer milk shake, he thought, he’d better do it in a town where he wasn’t known. But then, a man with a beard, ordering a beer milk shake in a town where he wasn’t known — they might call the police.

Later, though, the offense of consuming this teufelspissen, and the reaction—a kind of "meh"—is so out of proportion to the culinary effrontery that one has to discount Steinbeck's judgment of both food and drink completely:

Doc walked angrily to the counter of the stand.The waitress, a blond beauty with just the hint of a goiter, smiled at him. “What’ll it be?”“Beer milk shake,” said Doc.“What?”Well here it was and what the hell. Might just as well get it over with now as some time later.The blond asked, “Are you kidding?”Doc knew wearily that he couldn’t explain, couldn’t tell the truth. “I’ve got a bladder complaint,” he said. “Bipalychaetorsonechtomy the doctors call it. I’m supposed to drink a beer milk shake. Doctor’s orders.”The blonde smiled reassuringly. “Oh! I thought you were kidding,” she said archly. “You tell me how to make it. I didn’t know you was sick.”“Very sick,” said Doc, “and due to be sicker. Put in some milk, and add half a bottle of beer. Give me the other half in a glass — no sugar in the milk shake.” When she served it, he tasted it wryly. And it wasn’t so bad — it just tasted like stale beer and milk.“It sounds awful,” said the blonde.“It’s not so bad when you get used to it,” said Doc. “I’ve been drinking it for seventeen years.”

I mean, given the monumental lack of judgment here, we're lucky Steinbeck didn't advocate squishing those hamburgers with a shoe.

Fans of Steinbeck may take courage from the fact that he was not alone in his culinary ineptitude.  Consider an even greater writer, Ernest Hemingway.  While Hem was rightly considered something of a bon vivant, and could rhapsodize about the comestible delights of Italy and France, when he moves from being a diner to depicting the act of cookery itself, he stumbles from the sublime heights of Paris to the degraded depths of the canned food aisle.

Consider this passage from "Big Two-Hearted River":

 Nick was hungry. He did not believe he had ever been hungrier He opened   and emptied a can at pork and beans and a can of spaghetti into the frying pan. "I've got a right to eat this kind of stuff, if I'm willing to carry it,” Nick said.His voice sounded strange in the darkening woods. He did not speak again. He started a fire with some chunks of pine he got with the ax from a stump. Over the fire he stuck a wire grill, pushing the tour legs down into the ground with his boot. Nick put the frying pan and a can of spaghetti on the grill over the flames. He was hungrier. The beans and spaghetti warmed. Nick stirred them sad mixed them together. They began to bubble, making little bubbles that rose with difficulty to the surface- There was a good smell. Nick got out a bottle of tomato catchup and cut four slices of bread. The little bubbles were coming faster now. Nick sat down beside the fire and lifted the frying pan off. He poured about half the contents out into the tin plate. It spread slowly on the plate. Nick knew it was too hot. He poured on some tomato catchup. He knew the beans and spaghetti were still too hot. He looked at the fire, then at the tent, he was not going to spoil it all by burning his tongue. For years he had never enjoyed fried bananas because he had never been able to wait for them to cool. His tongue was very sensitive. He was very hungry. Across the river in the swamp, in the almost dark, he saw a mist rising. He looked at the tent once more. All right. He took a full spoonful from the plate. "Chrise," Nick said, "Geezus Chrise," he said happily.  

The writing here is really quite wonderful.  We get, of course, the characteristic rhythm of Hemingway’s sentences in their syntactically parallel style, and that great “Geezus Chrise” grin.  And we also get that zooming out into the eerie, almost sublime woods, large with a darkness that wraps itself around Nick’s echoing voice, and then the retreat to the little, cozy heimlich world of the campfire—a movement reflecting Nick’s own life-journey into war and, imperfectly, back home again.  But in inverse proportion to the glory of the writing is the food.  I mean, let’s be perfectly clear about this: the dish over which Nick Adams rhapsodizes, for which he invokes the name of God, is a can of spaghetti mixed with a can of pork and beans and poured over ketchup.  Had the narrative called upon us to pronounce heavy judgment upon Nick here, even to discard the sympathy for him that Hemingway has painfully cultivated in us, one could bear it.  As it stands, one is just a little bit shattered.  The only plausible beverage pairing for such a vexation to gastronomy is, of course, a beer milkshake.  But if I see you order one, I’m calling the police.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World — Free Online Access, Sale Price on Amazon

Good news!  My book  The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World is more available than ever — if you have access to Project Muse through, say, your local university library's site, you can download the whole thing, or any individual chapters, as free pdfs.  Also, you can get the print version on sale at Amazon for about thirteen bucks.  Since the thing weighs in at 323 pages, you can't afford not to get your hands on it!

What's in the thing, you ask?  Here's the jacket copy listing the questions the book asks:
What are we really wishing for when we want poetry to have the prominence it had in the past? Why do American poets overwhelmingly identify with the political left? How do poems communicate? Is there an essential link between formal experimentation and political radicalism? What happens when poetic outsiders become academic insiders? Just what makes a poem a poem? If a poet gives up on her art, what reasons could she find for coming back to poetry? These are the large questions animating the essays of The Poet Resigns: Essays on Poetry in a Difficult Time, a book that sets out to survey not only the state of contemporary poetry, but also the poet's relationship to politics, society, and literary criticism. In addition to pursuing these topics, The Poet Resigns peers into the role of the critic and the manifesto, the nature of wit, the poetics of play, and the persistence of modernism, while providing detailed readings of poets as diverse as Harryette Mullen and Yvor Winters, George Oppen and Robert Pinsky, Pablo Neruda and C.S. Giscombe. Behind it all is a sense of poetry not just as an academic area of study, but also as a lived experience and a way of understanding. Few books of poetry criticism show such range - yet the core questions remain clear: what is this thing we love and call 'poetry,' and what is its consequence in the world?
Those of you looking to download just a chapter or two might want to have a look at an earlier post in which I wrote a sentence or two on each of them.

Project Muse, if you're lucky enough to have access to it, is a great source not just for scholarly articles, but for books.  You can also download my 2010 book Laureates and Heretics: Six Careers in American Poetry there (or buy an actual book for eighteen bucks).

And, since I'm in full-on self promotion mode, I might also mention that you can now download Slight Return: Remix and Ekphrasis, one of my collections of poems, for free too — even if you don't have Project Muse.  Among other things, it includes the prose poem sequence "The Kafka Sutra," with amazing illustrations by printmaker Sarah Conner.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Charmless and Interesting: What Conceptual Poetry Lacks and What It's Got

The brouhaha over conceptualism continues, with more and more people chiming in. There's a roundup of current opinions over at the Poetry Foundation, and the PF has been kind enough to allow me to lay down my own views.  Here are the first couple of paragraphs:

Fourteen months after reading at the White House, Kenneth Goldsmith found himself in the real center of American power: cable television.  His appearance on The Colbert Report, though, coincided not with a general celebration of the conceptual poetics with which he is associated, but with two stinging attacks on such poetics: one by the young poet Amy King in The Rumpus, and another by the esteemed poet-critic Calvin Bedient in Boston Review.  King’s criticism revolved around the idea of conceptualism as an in-group phenomenon, and on the hypocrisy of conceptual poets striking anti-establishment poses while simultaneously seeking, and beginning to find, such laurels as the established institutions of American poetry have to offer.  Bedient’s article criticized conceptualism for a lack of concern with emotion and affect, which he linked with both a truncating of poetry’s possibilities and a kind of reactionary political stance.  People’s responses to these criticisms, to judge by the emails, texts, phone calls, and Facebook messages I received, were passionate—half of my friends in the little world of poetry expressed delight that the horrible careerist bastards were finally getting called out for their sins, while the other half spluttered in outrage at those who dared try to quench the glorious yet fragile flames of poetic innovation.
This is a moment, then, for an assessment of the virtues and vices of conceptual poetry.  What does conceptual poetry lack, compared to other poetries, and what does it have to offer?  Any brief answer will, of course, be too general, but we can begin to sketch things out with reference to two aesthetic categories: the charming and the interesting.  Whatever else conceptualism has got going for it, it lacks—at least in its pure form—the former.  And whether one likes conceptualism or not, anyone who has engaged with it has found that it has, wonderfully or frustratingly, got plenty of the latter.

The rest is up at the Foundation's site.