Archive for the 'House Red: Literary and Intellectual' Category

The Tennyson Project

…I have tried to confront greatness directly: to ask what makes the author and the works canonical. The answer, more often than not, has turned out to be strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange. Walter Pater defined Romanticism as adding strangeness to beauty, but I think he characterized all canonical writing rather than the Romantics as such.—Harold Bloom, The Western Canon

We wade into treacherous currents when we take up the canon, canon bashing being a fashionable pursuit within what Bloom calls the School of Resentment: too white, too male, too dead. By all means let us celebrate greatness wherever it may be found. The loss is ours when greatness is marginalized, forgotten, or never known, whether out of bias, ignorance, or benign neglect. It does not follow, though, that all who are excluded belong, no more than that we would be well served by consigning the canon to the waste bin of history alongside patriarchy, slavery, and the like.

The canon is not writ in a password-protected, read-only document, much less stone. Standards and authority on which canonical status rests are fodder for debate and disputation. That is the character of the intellectual adventure. It is fine to ask, and to ask indignantly, Who made Harold Bloom, or Helen Vendler or Frank Kermode or Camille Paglia or Kenneth Rexroth, the arbiter? No one did, of course. What authority they have is by dint of the persuasiveness of their thinking on these matters, thinking that comes from a love of literature and life devoted to reading and study, not that we are compelled to buy wholesale whatever they may be peddling. In the end we make our own critical judgment and choices, having read as widely and thought as well as we are able, aware that our knowing is always partial and inadequate.

I have not much interest in argument about whether a particular individual belongs in or out of the canon, nor in rankings, lists of top ten, twenty-five, one hundred poets, novelists, baseball players, what have you. There is a core around which general consensus may be found, allowing for curmudgeonly exception, while at the edges membership tends to be more contentious. Among other things the canon is a compendium of writers whom I might find it worth my while to check out. There is not time enough in our lives to read everything we want to read, much less devote serious study to what merits it. We must pick and choose on the basis of something. The canon is one basis. People whom I have read, whose opinions I respect and thinking I find persuasive, consider these writers and their works to comprise the best that has been thought and said, to borrow Matthew Arnold’s phrase. This does not mean that I must have the same regard for a particular writer as Bloom or Paglia or Rexroth, nor that they are the final word on the best that has been thought and said. The canon is simply a good place to begin. We can take up the argument from there.

So, Tennyson. No doubt I read something of Tennyson in school and smatterings after, although none of it comes to mind as having made any impression until a chance encounter last winter with the concluding  lines of “Ulysses” quoted in a mystery novel (Matthew Pearl, The Dante Club):

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are, —
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

I was moved to commit the passage to memory and turned to the poem, where Ulysses has handed his kingdom over to his son and is exhorting his old pals to set off with him on one last adventure. Acknowledgement that time demands its toll on us, utterly at odds with contemporary American sensibility, is coupled with refusal to give in. Made weak by time and fate, we remain strong in will. That which we are, we are. The sentiment is all the more potent for being expressed with the lyricism for which Tennyson is noted and in some eyes unsurpassed among English poets. He is sufficiently well ensconced in the canon for me to wonder if I might be missing something.  Bloom puts him the most accomplished English poet since Milton and Pope, while T.S. Eliot finds in Tennyson “three qualities which are seldom found together except in the greatest poets: abundance, variety, and complete competence…. He had the finest ear of any English poet since Milton.”

Thus was born the Tennyson project, not that I had need of another project. The dining room table is a mess of projects in progress and assorted states of dissolution and partial abandonment: Being and Time, The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, and Aristotle’s Rhetoric for the Heidegger project; the Beckett letters; the Corso letters; the notebooks and journals that chronicle desperate attempts to rekindle a poetic spirit all but destroyed by what must be done to earn a living. An excursion to Powell’s turned up Robert Bernard Martin’s biography Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart and the Norton Critical Edition of the poems. To date I have read several shorter poems and am slogging through “In Memoriam,” not much taken with any of it apart from “Ulysses.” Of the poems, more anon. The life is another matter.

Alfred (1809–1892) was the fourth son of twelve children, the first of whom died in infancy, and was followed by four more boys and four girls in the family of George Tennyson, an embittered provincial clergyman, and Elizabeth, “easy-going, unworried by details, and more than a little feckless about running the household.” Martin refers to “their disastrous life together” (p. 15). George was forced by his father, also George, into the clergy by way of profession. The elder George was an old tyrant whose correspondence reflects “three recurrent concerns: money, filial ingratitude and disobedience, and health” (Martin, p. 8). He never cared for his first-born son and namesake, depriving him of what would have been his due as elder son by making the younger Charles his major heir.

Dysfunctional is hardly an adequate description for the Tennyson clan, a collection of alcoholics and opium addicts, poseurs and pretenders to nobility, misfits and layabouts afflicted by epilepsy and gout, hypochondria, and varieties of lunacy, to which Alfred was not exactly an exception. His great-grandfather married a woman from a well-do-do family of aristocratic origins and a legacy of “aberrant mentality” (Martin, p. 2) that would be passed down accordingly. Alfred’s grandfather did well for himself by way of connections from his mother’s family, acting as agent or legal adviser to big landholders in the county. Much to his father’s disappointment, the younger George married a beautiful woman with no money. He drank heavily, threatened his wife and children with physical harm, was subject to delusion and black depression, and became increasingly unstable with the passing years. This was the poet’s heritage.

Tennyson was educated at Cambridge, matriculated at any rate, for though intelligent he showed little more interest in his studies and making his way in the world than had his father. As poet though, he was precocious from an young age, and with his brother Charles, not without talent himself, in 1827 published a collection titled Poems by Two Brothers. He soon impressed his circle at Cambridge with his talent. That circle included Arthur Henry Hallam, the great friend of Tennyson’s youth, who himself impressed everyone as the most brilliant of the group.

While determined that poetry was his career, the only occupation to which he was ever inclined, young Tennyson was generally indifferent to publication. A thin skin for criticism and anxiety about rejection had something to do with this, as did a tendency to indolence that ran in the family. Encouraged by Hallam and friends, who readily proclaimed his genius, Tennyson put out Poems, Chiefly Lyrical in 1830 and Poems in 1832, albeit after hedging and procrastination. Neither volume produced much by way of sales, the latter earning only vicious criticism from the likes of Edward Bulwer (later Bulwer-Lytton) and the Quarterly Review‘s John Wilson Croker, infamous for his brutal review of Keats’s “Endymion” two decades earlier.

Nonetheless, Tennyson early on acquired a reputation as an up-and-coming poet. It was an era when eminent people traveled in the same or least concentric circles. Among friends and acquaintances were numbered some of the leading lights of the day, Edward Fitzgerald, Thomas Carlyle, Robert Browning, Hallam’s friend William Gladstone, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Makepeace Thackeray. Tennyson met Wordsworth and was acknowledged by him as the premier poet of his era.

His was something of a vagabond existence during the 1830s, what was described as “a kind of genteel vagrancy” (Martin, p. 288), crashing with friends, sprawled on chair or sofa, feet propped up on the furniture, indifferent to decorum, incessantly smoking the cheapest and foulest tobacco from a dirty little pipe. While not well off at this time, Tennyson was by no means as impoverished as he seems to have thought himself using his wealthy friends as a measure. He received an annual gift of £100 from an aunt and in 1843 Fitzgerald began giving him £300 annually. Martin writes,

Apparently it never occurred seriously to Tennyson that he might take any employment, although Carlyle and Fitz were constantly assuring him that his poetry would be vastly improved if he had some other occupation. An argument on the point would have been graceless at best while accepting Fitz’s help, but it was hard to swallow the advice from a man like FitzGerald who had never done a day’s work in his life.

At the bottom of a common attitude like that of Carlyle and FitzGerald lay a covert disbelief in the value of poetry, an assumption that it could occupy no more than a segment of the mind of a reasonable man. Because he was physically, and sometimes intellectually, slothful, Tennyson was constantly being confronted by those who thought he would be better occupied by taking more conventional employment and leaving his poetry for hours of leisure. Had he taken the advice of such counsellors, Tennyson would never have written any more poetry, for with him it was the whole concentration of a life or it was nothing. (Martin, p. 270)

Although priggish and puritanical in matters of sex, Tennyson was to a degree dissolute in other respects. He smoked prodigiously, a habit frequently commented on, and by 1835 he was drinking more than was prudent, as Martin has it, and did so until near the end of his life when he gave up port because of his gout. Friends remarked that Tennyson found alcohol necessary; “[Coventry] Patmore said that he needed at least a bottle of port daily for stimulation, although he was not particular about its quality but simply bought whatever was available at the nearest public house.” (Martin, p. 321)

Fitzgerald once wrote that “Alfred Tennyson has written to announce that he will pay me a visit here: and I have written back to stipulate that it shall be a very short one.” He offers this description from 1840:

When I got back to my lodgings, I found A. Tennyson installed in them: he has been here ever since in a very uneasy state: being really ill, in a nervous way: what with an hereditary tenderness of nerve, and having spoiled what strength he had by incessant smoking &c.—I have also made him very out of sorts by desiring a truce from complaints and complaining—Poor fellow: he is quite magnanimous, and noble natured, with no meanness or vanity or affectation of any kind whatever—but very perverse, according to the nature of his illness—So much for Poets, who, one must allow, are many of them a somewhat tetchy race—. (Martin, p. 250)

Another sketch comes from Carlyle, describing the poet for Emerson:

One of the finest looking men in the world, a great shock of rough dusty-dark hair; bright-laughing hazel eyes; massive aquiline face, most massive yet most delicate, of sallow brown complexion, almost Indian-looking; clothes cynically loose, free-and-easy;—smokes infinite tobacco. His voice is musical metallic,—fit for loud laughter and piercing wail, and all that may lie between; speech and speculation free and plenteous: I do not meet, in these late decades, such company over a pipe!—We shall see what he will grow to. He is often unwell; very chaotic,—his way is thro’ Chaos and the Bottomless and Pathless; not handy for making out many miles upon. (Martin, p. 242)

As it was, fortune turned for Alfred in middle age. In 1850 marriage followed fast on the heels of the publication of In Memoriam, his elegies for Hallam, each event a resounding success, bringing with it family, celebration as England’s greatest living poet, the poet laureateship.

Eliot had it that Tennyson was one of those poets that crop up now and then who “by some strange accident expresses the mood of his generation, at the same time that he is expressing a mood of his own which is quite removed from that of his generation.” Perhaps my temper is just not in tune with the temper of Tennyson or of his generation, and never with Eliot. Tennyson made friends and favorable impressions readily. While his family history and circumstances make for good reading and the circles within which he traveled are noteworthy, he does not strike me as particularly intriguing personally, intellectually, or as poet. I am surprised that I do not feel greater sympathy for a man so determined to devote his life to his calling as poet. I would think that would be right up my alley. Maybe the life would hold more for me if the poems held more—and vice versa. As it stands, the project is worth taking on but not delving into much more deeply unless I happen on in the poems something  of Bloom’s strangeness that I have not found thus far. I remain open to the possibility.

References

Harold Bloom, The Western Canon. Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994.

T.S. Eliot, “In Memoriam,” in Tennyson’s Poetry. W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.

Robert Bernard Martin, Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart. faber and faber, 1983.

 

Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch
by Donna Tartt
Little, Brown, 771 pp.

There is nothing quite like being gloriously lost in a book, the kind I might take to bed to read just a few pages before dropping off at the close of a wearying day, only to be still at it fifty pages on, thinking, good grief, I need to put this down and get to sleep. The kind where brimming over with enthusiasm I might gush to a friend, “You’ve got to read this!” The kind that when the copy read was borrowed, I nonetheless feel a tremendous urge to purchase a copy for my own bookcase. That kind of book.

I cannot take up the topic without engaging in fond memories. From teenage years, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy and The Lord of the Rings. On to college and after, Dostoevksy’s big four. The Plague by Albert Camus. On the Road, at least six readings while in my twenties. Some retain their magic with the years. Dostoevsky is rich with new wonders each time I go to him. Not so Kerouac. I have picked up On the Road several times in recent decades without going far with it. I do not see myself returning to Asimov. There are also any number of books and writers I read with considerable pleasure without experiencing quite the same enchantment, some of which I consider quite important. Samuel Beckett halloos out to me here with a different enchantment.

The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s first novel, made quite a splash when it was published in 1992. Whatever I may have read about the novel at that time did not draw me in. Tartt’s second novel, The Little Friend (2002), passed me by without notice, as did The Goldfinch, despite considerable hullaballoo that accompanied its publication as “perhaps the most anticipated book of the fall [2013] season, a 771-page bildungsroman that has been called dazzling, Dickensian and hypnotizing.” (Julie Bosman, Writer Brings in the World While She Keeps It at Bay: Donna Tartt Talks, a Bit, About ‘The Goldfinch,’ The New York Times, 20 October 2013).

The Goldfinch popped up on my radar this spring when Sylvia Lindman recommended it and loaned me her copy. I take her recommendations to heart, but as usual I had a number of things going at the time, so did not plow into The Goldfinch right away. First I polished off two Scandinavian crime novels checked out of the library—Jo Nesbø, The Redeemer, and Arnaldur Indridason, Hypothermia, lest anyone get the mistaken impression that my reading is all highbrow foofaraw. The Tennyson project, the Being and Time course, and Posthumous Keats (Stanley Plumly) were moved to the back burner.

Little did I suspect how far back Tennyson and the others would be pushed as I became gloriously lost in The Goldfinch. When was the last time a book took me like this? I cannot recall. Tartt goes after grand themes and big ideas—love, friendship, loss, how it is that art speaks and matters to us, meaning of life and, more particularly, as she noted in an interview with Charlie Rose, what is the good life, the life truly worth living—and she pulls it off. Tartt is adept at creating dramatic tension by foreshadowing an inevitable denouement where things will not turn out well for people about whom we care, while precisely what that outcome will be and how things will play out to reach it remain to be seen. At the same time, there is a remarkable display of erudition and learning that never comes off as pedantic, pretentious, or in any way forced; rather, this aspect comes out every bit as naturally as the most ordinary of descriptions, stuff the author knows and the characters would know, and for the reader almost always provocative and interesting.

The novel opens with the narrator holed up in a hotel in Amsterdam, where he dreams of his mother for the first time in years. “Things would have turned out better if she had lived…. Her death was the dividing mark: Before. And after.” This leads to an account of events on the day of her death fourteen years earlier, when Theo, the protagonist, was thirteen. The tale unfolds at its own pace with an accumulation of detail that draws the reader into the world of Theo and his mother, their personalities, relationship, and lives, without ever dragging. To the contrary, we turn the pages quickly as we can to find out what will happen as tension builds moment by moment to remarkable effect.

From the death of his mother, Theo’s memories take us through his life from New York to Las Vegas, back to New York, and finally Amsterdam. He is bright, a gifted student who does not always apply himself, as they say, with a knack for making choices that may not be the best, not that he has much by way of adult guidance or role model. His life takes on a life of its own, never altogether in his control, marked by pain, loss, regret, a litany of betrayal. The Goldfinch lost a bit of its luster about three-quarters of the way into it as Theo’s actions became ever more problematic. Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley comes to mind, though Theo is more sympathetic and, for all his flaws, at a far remove from Ripley the amoral sociopath. He is caught up in classically noir, or maybe just classic, circumstances not of his own making that severely constrain his options, yet what happens is also partly consequence of acts for which he bears responsibility and partly simple human frailty—sometimes we just mess up. He is responsible for his actions and he is at the mercy of fate and chance. Because he is engaging and likable, I want him to be a better person than he is, almost cringing as I watch him follow the path of least resistance to one poor choice and foolish move after another. My journal note at this point, as I thought I might have to revise my estimation of the book slightly downward, concluded, “A fine novel nonetheless, just slightly less enchanting at this stage.”

The tale found its way again in short order. All sorts of outcomes are imaginable as the climax approaches. Each that I could imagine was at least a bit of a letdown in one way or another. Tartt nailed it. The Goldfinch is nothing less than a tour de force. Those who rank Donna Tartt with the finest writers of our time get no argument from this quarter. I look forward a go at The Short History as soon as I make some headway with the ongoing projects.

memo from the editorial desk

Minor edits were made to this essay after it was posted. The edits were not substantive.

Something Draws Us In

…It comes, I tell you, immense with gasolined rags and bits of wire and old bent nails, a dark arriviste, from a dark river within.—Gregory Corso, How Poetry Comes to Me

Gregory Corso’s Gasoline comes with this epigraph and an introduction by Allen Ginsberg, who characteristically waxes enthusiastic about his friend:

Corso is a great word-slinger, first naked sign of a poet…. He wants a surface hilarious with ellipses, jumps of the strangest phrasing picked off the streets of his mind like “mad children of soda caps.”

Corso’s poems display a love of language and joyous playfulness whose capacity to amuse and amaze light up the everyday world. He does not transport us to an enchanted realm so much as he opens up the enchantedness of those realms where we customarily find ourselves.

Jack Kerouac catches some of this in a passage from the early pages of On the Road, when he speaks of

the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

That “awww!” expresses something of what first sparked my enchantment with poetry, as when Corso describes a weird happening in Haarlem:

Four windmills, acquaintanceships,
were spied one morning eating tulips.
Noon
and the entire city flips
screaming: Apocalypse! Apocalypse!

We find it in surrealism in these images cited by André Breton in Manifesto of Surrealism:

The ruby of champagne. (Lautréamont)

A church dazzling as a bell. (Philippe Soupault)

In Rrose Sélavy’s sleep there is a dwarf issued from a well who comes to eat her bread at night. (Robert Desnos)

Poems speak to us through elements of rhythm, rhyme, figuration, form, and other means, with the power to persuade through the emotions apart from or even against rational argument and literal meaning of the text. Ginsberg’s exclamation, “But what is he [Corso] saying? Who cares?!” is facile and apt to divert us from more important points. That initial “awww!” does not come to much if a poem delivers nothing more. A strong poem has something to say, although this something may lose all power to move us when stated explicitly. It may defy explicit statement altogether.

Something draws us into a poem, some intriguing element that leads us to read on. Maybe it is Corso’s word-slinging, the striking surrealist image or metaphor, the rhythm of the lines, or other aesthetic elements, alone or in combination. Whatever it may be, while this immediate pleasure is not enough by itself to make a poem memorable or strong, it must be enough that we are intrigued to go on, to plough through passages in the longer poems of Wordsworth or Keats that are anything but enchanting or wrestle with the cognitive difficulties presented by Emily Dickinson, deferring immediate pleasure for the promise of a greater reward.

There is more to the poems that genuinely matter than the “awww” of an initial enchantment, however much we relish it, and however elusive those deeper pleasures may be.

For Poesy alone can tell her dreams
With the fine spell of words alone can save
Imagination from the sable charm
And dumb enchantment. Who alive can say,
Thou art no Poet—mayst not tell they dreams?”
Since every man whose soul is not a clod
Hath visions, and would speak, if he had loved
And been well-nurtured in his mother tongue,
Whether the dream now purposed to rehearse
Be poet’s or fanatic’s will be known
When this warm scribe my hand is in the grave.
—John Keats, “The Fall of Hyperion”

 

Ginsberg and Snyder Part II: Engaged Lives

I wrote Ginsberg and Snyder: hipsters, poets, scholars… in precipitous haste because I wanted to post it before Gary Snyder’s appearance at Reed College on 7 February. Following are a few additional comments and observations.

The relationship between the life and the work of any artist is a tricky business. If memory serves, Gregory Corso said that if the poet is interesting, the poem will be interesting. I am unable to locate the source, which I thought was either the Unmuzzled Ox interview from the early 1980s or maybe Neeli Cherkovski’s Whitman’s Wild Children but found it in neither when I skimmed through them. If not Corso, someone must have said it. Be that as it may, the proposition does not bear scrutiny. It is not uncommon to come across interesting people, and nice people, decent, upstanding, intelligent people, whose poems are of little interest. Turn the statement around, though, and it may be more generally accurate. If the poems are interesting, the poet is interesting. The ways in which the poet is interesting are as varied as poems and people. John Keats, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Emily Dickinson led quite different kinds of lives and may be interesting in quite different ways, though with the common ground that their thoughts, intellectual and spiritual, as always in a broad sense of that term, and their sense of themselves and their poems is always an aspect of what is of interest.

This topic can hardly be taken up today without getting into the matter of character. To be able look on the artist and the work with equally high regard is a wonderful thing. It is also a luxury. Artists are as flawed as the rest of us. We could start with Corso, who means much to me as a poet, but if you had him over for dinner you might be well advised to strip search him before he left. As poet John Berryman, no moral avatar himself, put it, Rilke is a jerk. We need not go into Shelley and Byron; that could occupy volumes. The uncomfortable fact of the matter is that if we reject the work of artists whose lives are less than exemplary, we deprive ourselves of much art that matters to us greatly.

We read biographies and letters of poets for much the same reasons we read poems, criticism, philosophy, history, and much else, because we want to know, not because we are looking for role models. If we find a life inspirational, so much the better, but ’tis almost a happy accident, not in the nature of things. As the saying goes, nothing human is foreign to us. The shadow of Keats’ life hovers in the background when I read “…in spite of all / Some shape of beauty moves away the pall / From our dark spirits”; as does Emily Brontë’s in the lines “I’ll walk where my own nature would be leading / It vexes me to choose another guide.” With other poets and other poems, the life may illumine not so much.

Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder are poets of engagement. Theirs is not a poetry of ivory tower or enchanted vale, nor of libraries and lecture halls, though I think it fair to surmise they must have felt at ease in these places, for they read and studied widely. Concerns and themes that animate their work as poets crop up time and again in the letters. Poetry and the life are an integrated whole as they take on the project that occupies us all, making a place for ourselves in the world and being accountable for it. What is it to live a good and fully human life? How am I to go about it in a world of human values mangled by inhuman economic and political systems in thrall to wealth and power, in face of all too human fear, ignorance, weakness, and greed, amid dizzying extremes of wealth and want? What am I to make of this human creature I find myself to be? And what of this community of which I am bound to be part? What am I to stand for and how do I stand for it? What is to be done?

We do not turn to poets for answers to these questions. Nor, I think, do we turn to them as role models except perhaps insofar as their striving is our striving, their falling short our falling short. Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder continue to matter because in their lives and in their words they bear witness to the spark that is human spirit, this thirsting, questing, aching, ever unfinished creature that each of us is.

There is what Snyder refers to in the preface to the selected letters and elsewhere as the real work, “working out the details, trail routes, land-management plans—and that’s what the ‘real work’ is.” What is to be done is to do as best we can, without false hope or illusion, yet never submissively resigned to fate. Says Snyder, looking back, “It was all just dust in the wind, but also, the changes were real.”

 

Ginsberg and Snyder: hipsters, poets, scholars…

An Evening with Gary Snyder
Reed College, 5:15 p.m., Vollum Lecture Hall

The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder
ed. by Bill Morgan
Counterpoint, 2009, 321 pp.

Recently while in Powell’s passing time before a dinner rendezvous, in search of nothing in particular, I happened on The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. The correspondence of literary figures tends to be a mixed bag, running from quotidian to exotic, tedious to enchanting, with more than a few stops in between, which I suppose makes it not much different from most other things human. This collection has some of all of that. Spanning forty years in five different decades, from 1956–1995, the letters of Ginsberg and Snyder offer glimpses into the minds and lives of two literary and cultural figures who have mattered to me for as long as I have thought of myself as a poet, going back to youthful encounter with Beat Generation texts that stirred my spirit. Their significance lies not much if at all in direct influence on the writing, but rather for the example of holding to a vision of oneself as poet and literary figure, in it for the duration.

Ginsberg enthusiastically proclaimed his own genius and that of his friends, unabashedly taking on the mantle of poet and visionary, maybe too enthusiastically and too easily. Does that matter? Maybe not. Snyder strikes me as more disciplined but equally sure of the ground on which he stood. There is not much expression of self-doubt in these letters.

The quest for authenticity and rejection of mainstream cultural norms and expectations went hand in hand. They were grad school dropouts and hipsters with freewheeling attitudes about drugs and sex, lifelong students of Western and Eastern canons as well as esoteric traditions. The letters contain routine mention of what books are being read, who is being studied. What was genuine scholarship engaged with intellectual rigor and what only dilettantism might be debated, with where one comes down on it colored by the degree of sympathy—or antipathy—felt toward the principals.

Much of the correspondence deals with practical affairs, Ginsberg relating his difficulties trying to get from Europe to on India to join Snyder and Joanne Kyger who were traveling there in 1961-62, Snyder offering Ginsberg tips on how to travel cheaply in India and what to see when he arrived, assorted other travel, of which they did a lot, poetry readings, lecture and teaching gigs, and land-management matters around a bit of property Snyder, Ginsberg, and a number of California countercultural types purchased jointly in the 1970s, with Snyder on site advising Ginsberg of disputes and resolutions and looking after his place on the property, arranging for upkeep, upgrades, and rentals.

The first letter in the collection, a brief note by Snyder about a poetry reading he and Ginsberg are planning, closes with a postscript: “Any time you could send monies, a few bucks, most appreciated.” (24 February 1956). Ginsberg responds the following month, “Sorry to be so slow. This should stave off the wolf till the 5th (April)—and will send you more then.” Ginsberg goes on to say that he just got paid, $10. Now $10 went considerably further in 1956 than it does today. Even so, ’twas no great sum. Here on display is the instinctive generosity Ginsberg exhibited throughout his life. The letters are peppered with instances of this kind of behavior on the part of both men, all related quite matter of factly, no great fuss made about it, simply what one does.

In poetry and in life they were politically engaged and socially committed. Theirs is a poetry of local eco-systems and the urban demimonde, hip communes and Zen monasteries, with intensely personal subjects taken up alongside the topical and the visionary. In youth they earned money in a variety of roustabout ways, seaman, logger, forest lookout, market research consultant. From the 1960s on they were sufficiently celebrated that they could make money on the lecture and poetry reading circuits, a quite honorable tradition in American letters, dating at least to the 19th century with Emerson and others. Eventually they found places for themselves in the academy, having established satisfactory bona fides as poets to be let in, Snyder as professor at University of California at Davis in 1985, Ginsberg more hither and yon.

The following give a feel for the two lifelong friends, their lives and work, and the culture they helped shape.

Young Snyder on politics

Nobody can straighten American politics out because the people won’t stand for it—how can internal economics be put in order when everybody wants everything? Any sane monetary policy or farm policy doomed to ruin. Ditto by extension foreign policy. Bread and Circuses. (Snyder, Kyoto, 10 August 1960)

I don’t trust the sentimental ex-Stalinist pro-Castro sentiment too much. God knows they needed a revolution there, but there are kids and there are men in this revolution business; I think Castro must be the former. Like, let him get aid from Russia and China if he likes, but be cool about it until his position is solid; bugging the U.S. out of its head serves no useful revolutionary function. (Snyder, Kyoto, 12 December 1960)

As sixties move into full swing

Allen Watts is in Japan and is very turned on by it—he has been taking lots of LSD and has a Shakti [female counterpart of a male deity], having left his own true wife. He says the future society will have to be one where there is total sexual freedom with tantric practices—children raised in groups, and people use LSD, mushrooms, etc.

All my Kyoto buddies have turned into hemp farmers.

There do seem to be two things going:

1. The individual working out his path by lonely self-enquiry and meditation.

2. A kind of social-sexual communal breakthrough, aided by dance, drugs, music, (meditation), etc. Now if we can reconcile these two and use them we can remake society utterly. (Snyder, Kyoto, 30 May 1962.

…the really great scene here’s been in MOVIES, a gang of homemade young cats from Lower East Side making films orgies street scenes in lofts… (Ginsberg, NY, 15 March 1964)

Things are exciting here; there is friction in some quarters…but most of the scene is a big flower. I wear Spanish boots, a gold ear-ring, dance the twist with young girls all the time, and roar about on my big red motorcycle. To say nothing of secretly planning student riots… (Snyder, SF, 17 October 1964)

Got drunk with Yevtushenko and waiting for Voznesensky to get back to town tomorrow…. I feel like Zeus walking through Red Square. (Ginsberg, Moscow, USSR, 1 April 1965)

Ginsberg on Gregory Corso

Gregory Corso here outrageous shithead borrowing money from students calling Trungpa [Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Ginberg's Buddhist teacher] a “dumb asshole” in midst of all sangha assembled speech, SHUT UP! vajra coice from Trungpa’s chair—and then they had tea the next day, and we all taught a poetry class together… (Ginsberg, Boulder Colorado, 11 July 1975)

I think it’s good to give Gregory grant for several reasons… Students [at Naropa] found him the most live or inspiring teacher…and sanghic community found him workable enough to want him back all next summer as a regular lecturer, as difficult as he is. In San Francisco he’s written a number of interesting texts—prefaces, newspaper pieces—which in a decade’s time will seem very sharp…I sent formal letter…re-recommending consideration of Gregory [as member of National Institute of Arts and Letters]. Reasoning (1) despite appearances he’s creating actively, (2) despite appearances he’s socially useful, (3) his situation is an old one, Van Gogh, Crane, etc. i.e. really difficult, oft half mad, but still spirit of genius is there working, producing artifacts which enrich others later in gross and fine ways both. (Ginsberg, NY, 11 November 1977)

Money woes

I’m broke…so I’ve got to go out do readings… (Ginsberg, NY, 14 December 1976)

Snyder on land-management issues with the jointly owned property

They all agreed to meet at 3 P.M. the following Friday (May 7) and walk out their own land-boundaries, and begin to formulate some land-use policies in accord with the agreement. I couldn’t go, but at 3 P.M. my right-hand man, Zac Reisner, went up there to join the walk with them. Nobody was there at 3. Zac rounded them up, a few, and ‘Jaya,’ who claimed to know where the corners were, said he would join them later, but never showed up. No one had a compass, so Zac showed them what a compass was, and how you walk a line with it. Nobody had ever seen a map of the area before, or had heard of the geodetic survey quads, it seems. On walking the line, they noticed that the boundary on the north is only three feet from the corner of the craft-shop, and runs rights through somebody’s geodesic dome. A large permanent tipi is well over in BLM [Bureau of Land Managment]. (copy of Snyder letter to Dick Baker, passed on to Ginsberg, May 1971)

Miscellaneous

Listen man if you feel up to it will you write me a concise statement of your theory of beatness and its relation to vision, poetry, and America? and sex? I am seeing new angles to this rough Zen-discipline shot; perhaps by reducing one’s life to essentials of eating (barely enough) and sleeping (barely enough) and working (hard) and subjecting you to constant psychological pressure of meditation and interviews they are, within a controlled situation, making you thoroughly beat (Rinzai is the sect of the big stick whack) and aware of what is samsara [cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth] and what one’s body-self really craves, like food sex and sleep—and then makes that beatness flower into real insight…(3 June 1956, Kyoto, Japan)

When I said you needed discipline—which was quite possibly all wrong—I didn’t mean quit masturbating or anything like that. I was thinking of a more systematic intellectual and meditational approach toward understanding your own natural and astonishing illuminations that shine through poems, and not falling into Demon and Angel traps… (Snyder, Kyoto, 20 August 1956)

I am reading thru Shakespeare on board, beginning to end chronologically. (Ginsberg, 19 June 1956, aboard Military Sea Transporation Service ship)

I tend to organize my poetry thoughts for teaching and read more—like Paradise Lost and Wordsworth—to check up my rusty opinions. (Ginsberg, Cherry Valley, NY, 15 Sept 1976)

 

Ghost Town Poetry Volume Two

Ghost Town Poetry Volume Two
Christopher Luna, Editor and Publisher
Printed Matter Vancouver
114 pp., $10.00

PUBLICATION ANNOUNCEMENT

Ghost Town Poetry Volume Two commemorates ten years of open mic poetry in Vancouver, Washington. Christopher Luna founded the popular Ghost Town Poetry Open Mic reading series at Ice Cream Renaissance in November 2004. In 2007 the series moved to Cover to Cover Books, and Toni Partington joined Luna as a co-host. In 2011 Luna and Partington co-founded Printed Matter Vancouver, an editing service and small press which previously published Ghost Town Poetry, which includes poets from the first six years of the series, and Serenity in the Brutal Garden, the debut collection by Vancouver poet Jenney Pauer.

The anthology includes poems by Judith Arcana, Elizabeth Archers, Lana Ayers, Melinda Bell, Kristin Berger, April Bullard, Tiffany Burba-Schramm, Sheryl Clough, Ed Coletti, Joyce Colson, Brittney Corrigan, Michael Daley, Eileen Davis Elliott, Kathleen Flenniken, Daniel Gilchrist, Rob Gourley, Johnna Gurgel, Miles Hewitt, David Hill, Rainy Knight, Christi Krug, Jake Loranger, Lori Loranger, Zoe Loranger, Jack Lorts, Peter Ludwin, Christopher Luna, M, David Madgalene, Dryas Martin, Jim Martin, Doug Marx, David Matthews, Dennis McBride, Jack McCarthy, Mike G, A. Molotkov, Russell Monroe, Angeline Nguyen, Maggie O’Mara, Toni Partington, Jenney Pauer, Jennifer Pratt-Walter, Sidra Grace Quinn, Dan Raphael, Carlos Reyes, Kristin Roedell, Michael Rothenberg, Ralph Salisbury, Katharine Salzmann, Raul Sanchez, Mary Slocum, Gerard Donnelly Smith, Leah Stenson, Meredith Stewart, George Thomas, Nathan Tompkins, Grace Valentine, Ric Vrana, Julene Weaver, Ingrid Wendt, Steve Williams, John Sibley Williams, Sally Wong, Carolyne Wright, and Louise Wynn.

The book will have its official release on February 13 at the monthly Ghost Town Poetry Open Mic, which takes place at Cover to Cover Books (6300 NE St. James Rd., Suite 104B) at 7pm on the second Thursday of each month. For more information on this event, please visit Printed Matter Vancouver.

Ghost Town Poetry Volume Two will be available locally at Cover to Cover Books. As always, we urge you to support your local, independently owned bookstore.

The book can also be ordered through CreateSpace and Amazon.com.

 

 

Greeting 2014

My hopes for the coming year are modest: to post weekly an essay or review of some quality and interest, to write poems more than occasionally, to embrace the life of spirit and generally keep faith with the intellectual adventure to which I have haphazardly devoted myself for more than four decades. Beyond that I would like more travel than recent years have seen, although I say that each year without making it happen, and of course I will continue to lace up the running shoes and pound out the miles “whether there be shine, or gloom o’ercast.”

The little poem “a flight of fancy, for clarinet, and wind chime,” posted here on New Year’s Eve, had its genesis in chance, as so much does. While looking for a Christmas gift for my niece the artist Rachel Matthews, I happened on Dada East: The Romanians of Cabaret Voltaire by Tom Sandqvist, which in turn led to reflection upon my roots in Dada and Surrealism. I came to these adventures in art and life as a student at the time I was discovering and coming under the spell of Dostoevsky, Camus, and existentialism, the cinema of Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, a poetic tradition of the avant-garde that began with Charles Baudelaire and ran through Rimbaud, Mayakovsky, Apollinaire, Dada and Surrealism, and the American Beats. Dada and Surrealism were exotic, wild, revolutionary, the kind of thing to set a young person’s spirit afire.

The roots in Dada and Surrealism are not deep, almost minor next to Romanticism, which was present on the margins early on, only later, slowly through many years, to grow deeper and richer. Nonetheless, Dada and Surrealism were and remain important as example and inspiration, often appropriated to my own ends that were never strictly speaking Dadaist or Surrealist. Not least is Surrealism’s glorious myth of freedom, ever more precious in this age of neuro and genetic determinism and ubiquitous surveillance.

Thus Dada and Surrealism were on my mind in the weeks leading up to travel to Tulsa for Christmas. As it happened, elements within the melting pot of consciousness coalesced on the evening of 23 December as the plane made its descent into Tulsa International Airport. I pulled out my journal and jotted down the opening lines and a few subsequent images that became “a flight of fancy,” a poem whose borrowings are obvious, not a major work by any stretch, but in a period of my life when poems are hard come by, my spirit brightened with it.

 

a flight of fancy, for clarinet, and wind chime

Let’s close out the year and usher in the new with a little poem, perhaps prelude to something longer, more ambitious, or not, begun Monday night before Christmas as the plane descended on Tulsa.

a flight of fancy, for clarinet, and wind chime

Some days are not as bad as the rest.
This is not one of those days.
Minutes freeze into montage,
and seconds spin through the air
in a frenzy of lost time.
My spirit languishes
in a mess of boredom, guilt,
and pointless evasion.

Oh but to be off
on one of those old flights of fancy,
an irrepressible homage
to myths of freedom
and the madness of love.
Put a straight razor to that celluloid eyeball.
Run with an andalusian dog.
Romance an exquisite corpse.
Arouse the bourgeoisie
with your own discreet charm.
They will only devour you.

At the dinner party we drank coffee
until the visions came,
invoked prophecy in language immune to translation,
painted moustaches on mirrors,
swung from the arms of the clock
at the top of the winding staircase,
and gave ourselves
to frivolities of seduction
when all we really sought
was an intimation of grace.

the weekly essay…

In recent weeks I have made a renewed commitment to post a weekly essay, thinking that those who come to this space regularly might appreciate having some idea when they could expect to find new material. You might not think that throwing together a modest few hundred words on some topic or other would present such a challenge in circumstances where any topic at all is fair game. Nonetheless it turns out to be just that, a bit of a challenge.

At present I am cobbling together some thoughts on the subject of living well in the Socratic sense that to live well is to live honorably and rightly, spurred to this by the project for the winter term, rereading some Plato and taking up some Aristotle. As the time for Socrates’ execution drew near, his old friend Crito made one last plea for him to allow his friends to help him escape. Socrates turned him down again, explaining that he would be doing wrong if he broke the law even to escape the death sentence to which he was unjustly condemned. This he cannot do. At one point in the dialogue, Socrates says, “I should like you to consider whether we are still satisfied on this point, that the really important thing is not to live, but to live well.” To which Crito responds, “Why, yes.” Socrates: “And that to live well means the same thing as to live honorably or rightly?” Crito: “Yes.” (Plato, Crito)

The notion that to live well is the same thing as to live honorably or rightly seems a bit at odds with the temper of our time. In an age when life is to be clung to at almost any price, under almost any circumstance, and when living honorably and rightly figures into the calculus for living well barely if at all, these words come off as strange, quixotic, otherworldly. Maybe Socrates’ head was altogether in the clouds.

In public discourse and affairs of the state, there is much talk of profit and loss, benefit and risk, pragmatic considerations, bottom line, and the like, not so much about what might be honorable and right. In our private lives many of us want to do the right thing, try to do the right thing, and sometimes even manage to pull it off. But how willing are we to place everything on what is honorable and right?

As is so often the case, there are more questions than answers, beginning with the nitty-gritty of getting to just what it might be to act honorably and rightly in particular, concrete, messy circumstances of life. At this juncture I think of Wendell Berry, who made the point quite eloquently, as we might expect of him, when speaking of abortion. He noted that it is not often we have the luxury of choosing between good and evil. Most times we must choose between evils. Even this choice between evils is based on the information available to us, which is apt to be partial, incomplete, subject to bias. Whom do we believe, whom do we accept as authority, and on what grounds?

Taking care of ourselves, our families, and others dear to us, meeting our obligations as members of a community, setting the right example for any who might look to us as examples, these are all aspects of living well, honorably, rightly.

Alas, this is as far as I have gotten at present, from where I sit on Sunday evening. I present these tentative thoughts as modest prelude, I hope, to further reflection. Ciao.

in the spirit of an intellectual adventure I have not given up

From time to time I fall prey to an impulse to reflect on just what I might be up to with the little essays, the tries, that appear in this space. Some of it comes from a compulsion to explain and justify that can be insidious. The more positive take is that it is a matter of critical self-examination conducted with an attempt at rigor. Lines blur and distinctions may be inventive.

Sometimes it is helpful — or at least easy — to begin with what the subject under discussion is not. While I keep a journal of the pen-and-paper variety whose entries on occasion serve as something of an initial draft, perhaps more notes than draft, for a serious attempt at an essay, I have little interest in blog as personal journal, humdrum parade of the quotidian, and still less in the phenomenon of life logging, which strikes me as tedious and a little creepy.

Life logging popped onto the radar with a recent issue of The Economist featuring Google Glass on a cover with an ominous warning, “Every step you take: Google Glass, ubiquitous cameras and that threat to privacy.”

A life logger is described as

someone who thinks that if, as Socrates claimed, the unexamined life is not worth living, the life which is digitally recorded with an eye to potentially endless re-examination will have much to recommend it. Patterns in their data, they hope, will reveal opportunities to be healthier, happier and more effective (The people’s panopticon, The Economist, 16 November 2013).

The life logger serving as an example, one Cathal Gurrin, a computer scientist at Dublin City University,

wears a wide-angle camera around his neck which snaps several pictures of his field of view every minute, recording its location and orientation each time it does so. He has been using such devices for more than seven years. Over that time he has built up an archive of 12m images, and he currently produces about a terabyte of data a year.

“Say wha?” my knee jerked in response. What the accumulation of a mind-boggling mass of data might have to do with Socrates and any notion of the examined life is not considered, much less explained. No matter that the data can be sorted and searched to pull up where Mr. Guerrin left his car keys, no doubt helpful but hardly the stuff of the examined life, or what wine he drank at an event two years ago, useful if he remembers only that it was one heck of a wine, or maybe swill to be avoided at all cost but of no existential import. How I should conduct myself if I want to live a good life, what it might mean to live a good life, what I know and what I only think I know, what is the good, if there is such thing as the good, these and related topics are altogether something else on which the data shine no light, as best I can see.

To be poet as I conceive it for myself is not so simple a matter as those who conduct writing workshops and pen handbooks on how to write poetry, fiction, screenplays, and the like would have it. Poet is existential, a manner of being in the world. From one perspective it is existential and commitment; from another, it is what one finds oneself to be. As young Rimbaud put it in letters dated two days apart in May 1871, “So much the worse for the wood that discovers it’s a violin” (to George Izambard, 13 May 1871) and “If brass wakes up a trumpet, it isn’t to blame” (to Paul Demeny, 15 May 1871, tr. Louise Varese, in a preface to her translation of Les Illuminations).

I found myself miserably despondent when I returned from Seattle and the Green Lake Library reading two weeks ago. The person who wandered about Seattle and read those poems to a small audience, the person who wrote those poems more than a few years ago, is distressingly distinct from the person whose life consists today in large part of being at the office doing what must be done to earn a living wage and recovering from being at the office doing what must be done to earn a living wage. The two cannot coexist. There are times I am almost paralyzed by the absence of hope or prospect that I will ever again write poems akin to the few that may almost pretty good.

The blog is a refusal, maybe an inability, to give up. Newfangled technology is put to rather old-fashioned use, publishing here what might once have been distributed in the form of pamphlet or broadside. Too much consists of rather pedestrian observation and commentary on politics and current affairs motivated part by sense of obligation to take a stand on issues of day and part because I have no other material at the moment. I harbor some hope that sccounts of encounters with books and films, writers and directors, make for more substantial and enjoyable fare. I go on in the spirit of an intellectual adventure I have not given up and hope that some spark of vision will be rekindled to flame anew.

 

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