Sunday, June 7, 2009








Looking through the forgotten 1949 anthology, New British Poets,

edited by Kenneth Rexroth, published by New Directions in hardcover and never reprinted, or put out in paperback—

The pages of my copy are turning brown and flaky, and contain a review torn from the January 1950 issue of Poetry (Chicago) (not to be confused with that other magazine, Poetry London/New York),

by Paul Goodman, headlined The "New Romanticism" ——

Goodman begins his generally dismissive piece thus:

This is a collection of poems . . . roughly grouped as neo-Romantic . . . . [M]ost of the poems are not vitally interesting."

This period or trend in British poetry has not been much appreciated: the Movement (Larkin et al) put the quietus to its shade, and it seems to have instantly faded into oblivion with the death of its greatest exponent, Dylan Thomas—

Will this anthology ever be reprinted? Maybe on Google someday . . . though I suspect they (New Directions) might like to like to forget its existence, and would perhaps be ashamed to allow its digital appearance anywhere . . .


But I have to quote more of the Goodman piece:

Rexroth [in his introduction, which Goodman concentrates on to the virtual exclusion of the anthology itself: not a single poem is quoted, nor a single poet named] is much concerned about communication and the avoidance of obscure, "mechanical," constructions. Let me mention an incident. He gave a reading in New York last year, commencing with an old poem of his from the time when he was an Objectivist, a tendency characterized in this present essay as influenced by "Williams, Pound, Stein . . . Apollonaire, Cocteau, Tzara, Eluard, etc. It could be called the last gasp of literary cubism. It depended on an entranced sense of hyper-reality, a sort of hallucination of fact." Now that kind of thing, he said at the reading, did not communicate, he no longer liked it, and he went on to read recent poems in a more "direct" style. William Carlos Williams was in the gathering and he rose and pointed out (what was evident) that the earlier piece communicated both much more directly and more subtilely the underlying feeling and character; and that by trying to speak to the audience the poet created a fictitious "I" between his feelings and the audience rather less interesting than Kenneth Rexroth himself struggling with rhythms and warping the syntax. . . .

This anecdote is still relevant because the debate is not over and is still waged on mag-pages and blogs, although the disputants keep declaring their "evident" victory——

And by the way, how would YOU like to have William Carlos Williams stand up at your reading to inform you your old poetry was better than your new?

In the last paragraph of Goodman's faux review, he asserts that in this anthology

[T]he depths of insight opened by the Revolution of the Word are closed again, and we get the pleasant suburban earnestness of much of this collection.

Or as the SONs say about the SOQs, their pleasant suburban earnestness fails to equal the depths of insight opened by the Revolution of the Word.

It's a permanent Revolution of course, despite their endless campaigns and harangues, whose sole purpose is to perpetuate their rebellion in a chaos of stasis—

as Paul Valery put it, "Everything changes, except the Avantgarde."

Herbert addresses them at the end of "The Elegy of Fortinbras" thus: "you believe in crystal notions / not in human clay."

And as Cavafy lampoon-laments in "Waiting for the Barbarians," they would have been "a kind of solution" if only, if only . . .

One of my faves from the anthol:


Outside, the cubist fells are drawn again
Beneath the light that speaks ex tempore;
The fur of bracken thickens in the rain
And wrinkles shift upon the scurfy scree.

Inside, like tiles the poet's pleasures lie,
Squares laid on circle, circle laid on square,
And pencilled angles of eternity
Are calculated on the doubled stair.

Outside, the curlew gargles through the mist,
The mountain pansies shut up shop and fade,
The wheatear chisels with his crystal fist,
And day on day like stone on stone is laid.

Inside, are cows on canvas, painted bloom
Fresh as a girl's thin fingers burst to flower,
Bright leaves that do not fall, but fence the room
With the arrested growth of a June hour.

The curving cloud embellishes the sky,
The geometric rain slants to the corn;
Inside, a man remembers he must die,
Outside, a stone forgets that it was born.

—Norman Nicholson


It's interesting that Rexroth uses the phrase, "the last gasp of literary cubism," and Nicholson begins his poem by describing the moorland fells as "cubist."


Hitler's Skeleton, George Plimpton, and the C.I.A. Museum

Hitler's Skeleton, George Plimpton, and the C.I.A. Museum

As you might imagine, very few outsiders are permitted to visit the CIA Museum.   Even many civilian employees who work there in the steepled halls of the sprawling Headquarters facilities at Langley are unaware that deep beneath their feet lies an enormous series of caverns carved out of the substrata to create the chambers of an Art Museum where the CIA stores the treasures they've looted from around the world.

I say looted, but that fabulous horde is also the accumulation of criminal commerce: in their various numerous international drugs and arms transactions they have received, in barter as it were, a multitude of masterpieces and great works of art.  More Vermeers than anywhere.  The real Mona Lisa.  Well, the list goes on and on.  The Getty Museum is supposedly the world's wealthiest, but even their gilded collections pale before the CIA Museum's holdings . . .

Very few know of its existence, and fewer are permitted to visit it.  The curators jealously limit access.  Those wealthy tycoons who have contributed at least a billion dollars to the Republican party's secret offshore fund-accounts are given tours; and dictators of friendly fascist countries.  Heritage Foundation board officials, certainly; and the principals of other Conservative institutes and think-tanks.  High muckamucks of the Skull-and-Bones Society have carte blanche.

And of course, poets who went to Yale.

But George Plimpton and the Hitler skeleton? I've only heard rumors.  —How he used to borrow the (detachable) skull of this priceless relic, and bring it up to Manhattan; the story is that he liked to juggle it at parties given to promote his books and The Paris Review—

They say he loved to stick his penis out through the skull's mouth like a gloryhole; he would poke his pale member out between the toothless gape of the mad Nazi Führer for his editorial staff to fellate . . . what fun times they had back then in the annals of New York Literary History.

But the strangest incident regarding the Museum's Hitler skeleton was how and why it got goldplated.—

Someone—no one knows who—could it have been that crazy Angleton, acting under the orders of his spiritual mentor Ezra Pound?—some higherup, some Assistant Director facing retirement, some senile OSS ass with nothing to do, or some Harvard man,— whoever it was, whatever fool ordered it . . .

As I say, no one knows (or they won't tell) how the Hitler skeleton got taken from the Museum and brought down to the Metallurgy Department where, for whatever reason, they goldplated it . . .

Some drunken bet between Reagan and Brezhnev ? Or one of the other Soviet leaders?  Or what?  Did Franco blackmail Eisenhower to have it done as a trophy for his collection, and then the deal went sour?  Did Nixon have a brainstorm before his historic visit to China: did he think the Hitler skeleton would make a great gift to bring Mao, and that goldplating it would be the frosting on the cake?—until wiser heads (Kissinger's) prevailed? What? . . .

No one knows exactly why it got goldplated: but there it is today, dungeoned in the CIA's secret subterranean museum, still stubbornly glowing in its display case, next to Stalin's mummified head, down the aisle from John Lennon's ribcage and Picasso's nose.


Repost from my old blog: originally published May 15, 2006



An anecdote re Mallarmé (quoted from Selected Writings of Walter Benjamin, Volume 4, p. 117-18):
"The closest friends of the poet knew that he owned a working instrument for poetry in the form of a card file. It was made up of little slips of paper. No one knew what was written on them, and questioning him achieved nothing. One day, Viélé-Griffin entered Mallarmé's study and surprised the poet consulting one of his slips. Mallarmé's gaze lingered on it briefly, then he murmured pensively to himself: "I no longer dare tell them even that. Even that would give too much away." Viélé-Griffin stepped closer. Peering over the poet's shoulder, he saw a single syllable written on the paper: quel [which]."

Here's Selden Rodman, from the introduction to his 1949 anthology, One Hundred Modern Poems, briefly pondering the future of poetry: "Whether the future belongs to the Brechts or the Rilkes is a question beyond the scope of this preface. . . ." Earlier in the intro he cites Brecht as "the one poet. . . whose contribution to the poetry of collective faith may be as momentous as that of Rilke at the opposite pole."

The question then as today seems to be, what "faith" should one aspire to "contribute" one's artistic efforts toward the furtherance of: individual (spiritual) or collective (socialist)?

Well, we're in Rodman's future: does it belong to the Brechts or the Rilkes? Has Adrienne Rich ever bared her thoughts about Ashbery? Great poets don't waste their time on the other great poets of their time, it's only we minor hacks who worry our time with these questions. Great poets are elephants; they don't scratch that itch: they don't even feel it.

Benjamin (op. cit., page 169): "The elaborate theorums with which the principle of "art for art's sake" was enunciated—not only by its original proponents but above all by literary history (not to mention its present devotees)—ultimately came down to a specific thesis: that sensibility is the true subject of poetry. Sensibility, by its nature, is involved in suffering. If it experiences its highest concretization, its richest determination, in the sphere of the erotic, then it must find its absolute comsummation, which coincides with its transfiguration, in the Passion."

This is what Paz calls "the religious temptation." Poesie pure. Autotelicism. The poem as an end in itself. The absolute poem. Flaubert's dream of writing a book about nothing, sustained only by the virtuosity of style; Cezanne's apples; Williams' wheelbarrow.

No, the apples and the wheelbarrow are not nothing, but are they ancillary to the artist's quest? They're objects along the way, not the sought-for prize, unless. Gustave Moreau painted the Grail, the golden cup held up high enough to dazzle any streamlight. Will Moreau's content ever be seen as more important than Cezanne's form? Will the individualistic hero of form recede before the collective craftwomanship of content? Capitalism depends on the stubborn stylist, the ego-Van-Gogh, the andro-Cezanne whose myth can be marketed beyond its intrinsic value, hyped to the heights. Consumed.

"Individual faith" versus "Collective Faith." Capitalism (Religion/Fascism) versus Socialism. Or: Style versus Content. I don't have the exact quote, but Alfred Hitchcock said that critics who complained about the trivial or tawdry low-brow content of his films were like a museum-goer wondering whether Cezanne's apples were sweet or sour. They miss the point, he insisted. It's not content that's important, it's style. Any old apple or wheelbarrow or pistol poking out of a pocket will do for a subject. Content is irrelevant, or should be: the viewer or reader must focus first and most on the artist's stylistic choices and methods. WHAT the artist says or shows is secondary to HOW he or she does it. In fact, in this dispensation, in this scale of esthetics, the more insignificant the ostensible subject is, the better. Better because we can't be absorbed in apples or wheelbarrows for very long, their intrinsic lacks the sake we seek in art, they can't in and of themselves hold our interest for any length of time: and therefore when the framed thrust forward work bristling with certification confronts us with such inferior drab objects, we must of necessity look for something beyond the bare fact of them, and our attention shifts away, is shifted away from its initial focus on content, toward the stylistic mannerisms of the presentation. The more boring the content, the more intriquing the form (theoretically).

To retroactively backtrack and try and view the artist's hand in its decisive motions, before it has completed its act. There is no completed act, no boundwork of art in which the present might find its face, there is only the retrospect, the beforemath: as Lowell put it, "my eyes have seen what my hand did."

Which is too much. Content/subject/intent are excrescences that burden the work with extraneous matter. Meaning and message must be wiped away like dust that accumulates on the canvas. The Louvre even if it had only one painting in it would be too much; ergo Hitler's orders to burn Paris. (Marinetti: "Let us burn down the museums.")

In the NYTimes of March 12, 1999, Grace Glueck reviews the show "Painter's Poet: Stephane Mallarme and His Impressionist Circle'' (Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery of Hunter College), and says of the poet: "His closest friends were painters: Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas and James Whistler. He defended their work in his critical writings, and they did portraits of him and illustrations for his books. Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch, Odilon Redon, Auguste Rodin and Felix Vallotton, among others, also produced Mallarmean images and tributes." Glueck goes on for several paragraphs about the poet's connections and interactions with his Impressionist contemporaries. But she doesn't mention Puvis de Chavanne once, even in passing. (I didn't see the show, so I don't know if Puvis was included in it. . . .)

Mallarmé wrote a sonnet to honor Whistler, but he also wrote a "Hommage" to Pierre Puvis de Chavanne. Not his "close friend" Manet, not Degas, not Renoir etcet, but Puvis.

Glueck: "Mallarme wrote in praise of Manet's work and in 1874 produced a clever defense of the artist when the government-chosen jury for that year's Salon turned down two of four paintings—three oils and awatercolor—he had submitted. After subtly mocking the jury's conservatism, Mallarme predicted that public taste for Manet's work would eventually prevail. Two years later he published a more important discourse, ''The Impressionists and Edouard Manet,'' an eloquent paean to the new painting and the man he saw as its master."

Yes, but the fact remains that Mallarmé wrote a poem in praise of Puvis de Chavanne. Isn't there a distinction evident here? Doesn't his choice to praise Puvis in verse indicate the depth of his feeling for and his affinity with this overlooked and neglected painter? Art historians or journalists like Glueck who toe the party line, who confine their interest to the canon of established names, must wince and feel embarrassed for Mallarmé when (if) they read the following:


Toute Aurore même gourde
À crisper un poing obscur
Contre des clairons d'azur
Embouchés par cette sourde

A le pâtre avec la gourde
Jointe au bâton frappant dur
Le long de son pas futur
Tant que la source ample sourde

Par avance ainsi tu vis
O solitaire Puvis
De Chavannes jamais seul

De conduire le temps boire
À la nymphe sans linceul
Que lui découvre ta Gloire.

Form versus Content: Impressionism versus Symbolism.

Form vs. Content. Was it Robert Creeley who wrote: "Form is never more than an extension of content."

Form is never more than an extension of breakfast. As shown in this poem by Jacques Prévert, trans. by the forgotten poet Selden Rodman:


is the soft sound of a hardboiled egg
cracking on a zinc counter
and terrible is that sound
when it moves in the memory
of a man who is hungry
Terrible also is the head of a man
the head of a man hungry
when he looks at six o'clock in the morning
in a smart shop window and sees
a head the color of dust
But it is not his head he sees
in the window of 'Chez Potin'
he doesn't give a damn
for the head of a man
he doesn't think at all
he dreams
imagining another head
calf's-head for instance
with vinegar sauce
head of anything edible
and slowly he moves his jaws
slowly slowly
grinds his teeth for the world
stands him on his head
without giving him any comeback
so he counts on his fingers one two three
one two three
that makes three days he has been empty
and it's stupid to go on saying It can't
go on It can't go on because
it does
Three days
three nights
without eating
and behind those windows
paté de fois gras wine preserves
dead fish protected by their boxes
boxes in turn protected by windows
these in turn watched by the police
police protected in turn by fear
How many guards for six sardines . . .
Then he comes to the lunch counter
coffee-with-cream buttered toast
and he begins to flounder
and in the middle of his head
blizzard of words
muddle of words
sardines fed
hardboiled eggs coffee-with-cream
coffee black rum food
coffee crime black blood
A respectable man in his own neighborhood
had his throat cut in broad daylight
the dastardly assassin stole from him
two bits that is to say
exactly the price of a black coffee
two slices of buttered toast
an a nickel left to tip the waiter
is the soft sound of a hardboiled egg
cracking on a zinc counter
and terrible is that sound when it moves
in the memory
of a man who is hungry.