This week's decisions have shown us what we can expect from the Supreme Court in years to come. Like the man who leaves a bad smell behind as he exits the elevator, George Bush has left a legacy that will bedevil us for decades to come. This morning the court arrived at the ludicrous conclusion that the Constitution, and indeed Brown v Board of Education, forbids taking race into account when attempting to achieve desegregation.
Among the many ironies of this week's decisions:
apparently the new majority believes that it should "always err on the side of the first amendment" in considering free speech cases, except when the freedom of speech is that of high school students who are not on school grounds --
the desegregation plan that the Roberts Court held to be unconstitutional was the same plan that the Louisville school system had been ordered to follow under Brown v Board of Education -- The Louisville school board had contiunued to follow that plan, to their credit, when the federal court order was lifted --
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Friday, June 22, 2007
Today's mail brings me a copy of Jay Wright's wonderful new book, MUSIC'S MASK AND MEASURE (along with this postcard of Wright's study as photographed by his wife, Lois). This is the first new book from Wright since his collected poems, TRANSFIGURATIONS, appeared from LSU PRESS some years ago. Wright has been working quietly for decades, amassing one of the most impressive bodies of work in American poetry, mostly out of earshot of the clattering apparatus of the reputation-making machinery that bedevils us.
Here's a small taste from one of the book's five "Equations" -
fails that Carolina wren.
of a certain absence
draws fire upon its wings.
The book is available from FLOOD EDITIONS. Click on their name for information about how to order a copy.
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
I first saw Bernice Johnson Reagon (that's her on the right playing the large gourd) on the stage of the auditorium at Howard University. The event was billed as the First Annual Howard University Blues Festival. Sadly, the first turned out also to be the last. But for two nights, "the Hilltop" was the place to be as we welcomed to the stage Muddy Waters, J. B. Hutto, Howling Wolf and so many others, including B.B. King, who noted with tears coming to his eyes that this was the first time he had ever been invited to perform at a black university. The festival featured some local talent as well, and that's how Bernice came to be on the stage. She was already well known in folk music and Civil Rights Movement circles, as she had been a centerpiece of the Freedom Singers. If you've ever seen that widely circulated photograph from the Newport Folk Festival that shows Dylan, Baez and others all holding hands and singing together, that's Bernice holding one of Dylan's hands, and that's the rest of the Freedom Singers at her side.
The Howard Festival was more than a decade later, and Bernice was continuing her explorations of the music. The photo at the top of today's blog was taken just about six years after that and records the earliest version of what was to become one of Bernice's crowning achievements, SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK. The group had just released its first LP, on Flying Fish Records (and yes, you can get that music on CD now). That first album is memorable not only for its stunning singing, but also for the fact that the group had not yet gone entirely accapella. There are a couple of tunes with piano and violin, the breath-taking "Hey Mann" for one.
One of the great things about life in DC for decades was the annual Smithsonian Festival of American Folk Life. The year of this photo, the Smithsonian, where Bernice was to work for many years, invited SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK to join the other artists and to serve as strolling performers. I had been walking away from a festival event when I heard the haunting strains of this amazing quartet drifting in behind me. I turned around just in time to get this shot. That day and every day of the festival, hundreds of visitors were, as I was, stopped in their tracks by this beautiful music. Like me, too, they would then fall in behind the growing procession that trailed in Sweet Honey's wake. It was an instant parade of celebration and creation.
SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK has continued performing and recording for decades since, undergoing numerous changes in the line-up, surviving even the retirement of Bernice Johnson Reagon.
Here they are at the moment of their genesis.
Friday, June 15, 2007
Christine A Meilicke
Jerome Rothenberg’s Experimental Poetry and Jewish Tradition. Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press, 2005. 328 pp. Cloth $59.50.
Despite having been a major participant in, and even the progenitor of, several crucial movements in recent American poetry, Jerome Rothenberg has not received a great deal in the way of critical attention. Rothenberg has been credited with coining the term from which the "Deep Image" movement in poetry took its name, and yet, even as deep image poets such as Robert Bly and W.S. Merwin continue to be widely read, Rothenberg is already in need of a recovery for literary history; this even though Rothenberg is a frequent reader at universities and reading series internationally and has published many of the most important literary anthologies taught in classrooms. Christine Meilicke notes that "it is conspicuous that Rothenberg’s anthologies receive more attention than his poetry" and that "informed comments on Rothenberg’s poetry are rare" (31). Her own commentaries on Rothenberg are, at the very least, informed, and it may be hoped that this book will go a long way toward initiating discussions we should have had long ago.
In part, the problems with the reception of Rothenberg’s art are generational. By this I do not refer to generations of immigrant culture. On that score, Meilicke advances the proposition that some confusion may arise from the fact that "even though Rothenberg logically belongs to the second generation, he exhibits many traits typical of the third generation" (39) Of greater pertinence to the critical responses to Rothenberg’s work may be his position in the succeeding generations of modernism and its discontents. Jerome Rothenberg is a successor to both the Euro-modernist traditions of dadaism, surrealism and futurism, and the American poetics of Williams and the Objectivists. His work clearly communes with the mid-century projective verse of Charles Olson and belongs with the communities of experimentation represented by Donald Allen’s 1960 anthology The New American Poetry. As might be expected from that lineage, Rothenberg’s poetry is considerably more experimental in nature than the more popular works of Bly and Merwin, and yet Rothenberg is just enough a person of his generation that he does not fall in with the radical experimentation of such later groupings as the Language Poets. There is just enough of a nostalgia for the sacred in Rothenberg that his work does not fit easily with such later anti-foundationalists and suspectors of metaphysics as Charles Bernstein or Lyn Hejinian. And yet, a poet such as Bernstein is far more likely to have read and benefitted from Rothenberg’s work than are most more mainstream poets working today. In that sense, Rothenberg is, in the poetry world, a figure akin to what Coleman Hawkins was in the realm of jazz; someone who came of age aesthetically at the height of one modernism, but who has always been supportive of and open to the yet more radical movements that follow his own.
All of which makes Rothenberg a welcome figure among younger generations of innovative poets, but nearly a stranger to the university syllabus, except as an anthologizer. The same fate has met a number of poets with whom Rothenberg was associated in crucial movements of the 60s and 70s, and one of the great values of Meilicke’s book is her historicizing of those movements. I suspect that the history she establishes of a late twentieth-century Jewish avant garde in America will be new to a large number of readers, and this is one of the greatest contributions of her book. Rothenberg, along with poets David Meltzer and Jack Hirschman, was part of a group of artists, especially centered around Meltzer’s little magazine Tree, who can be seen as a vital counter-tradition within American aesthetics after modernity, a Jewish counterculture that retrieves the significant breakthroughs of Stein, Oppen, Zukovsky and Reznikoff, reworking their modernism within a revival of Jewish mysticism. Meilicke delineates three strands of a Jewish counterculture growing out of the larger protest movements of the 1960s: one is revolutionary and political; one is psychedelic and spiritual; and the third is antinomian and heterodox. The identification of these distinct strands is, of course, a hermeneutic device. One never finds any of the strands in isolation from the others, and it is the specific melding of them that leads to what Meilicke describes as a counter-cultural kabbalism among Rothenberg’s generation of experimental poets. That counter-tradition of mysticism is what will link a Rothenberg to such poets as Robert Duncan, on the one hand, while Rothenberg’s formal experimentation aligns him with a Charles Olson, who was positively allergic to many modes of mysticism, on the other. Like Olson, Rothenberg is attracted to forms of the primitive, but this is not the primitivism of an earlier generation of modernists. Rather it is a desire to find the primitive in the sense of primary, first, foundational. And that, in turn, is what the next generation of American avant garde poets was least likely to value in Rothenberg.
Which leaves Rothenberg in the invariable betwixt and between position of American poets generally. Unlike some among the early postmodernists, he has never engaged in polemical attacks on the Language poets; in fact, he has been a valued friend to many of them. His position is accurately outlined by Meilicke as transcending "the confines of academic formalism, the habits of the New American Poetry and the negations of avant-garde Language Poetry" (22). While one might well question the characterization of Language Poetry here, it is certainly true that it set out upon a programmatic disavowal of the recourse to metaphysics and a poetics of presence so common to the Jewish counterculture described in this book.
The volume might have benefitted from some closer editing. I’m not sure it was necessary for the conclusion to repeat at length a quote from Peter Middleton that had been given earlier in the book. And there are occasional bouts of circularity, as in this sentence: "His numerological poems play with the symbolism of numbers, while the gematria poems utilize the Jewish discipline of gematria" (125). But these are rare flaws, and when Professor Meilicke is actually analyzing what Rothenberg achieves metaphorically via poetic numerology or what he creates out of his fascination with gematria, she offers an even rarer depth of comprehension matched with her broad knowledge of the subjects. A more serious fault is that Meilincke does not give enough space to the large body of criticism of Rothenberg’s ethnopoetics, the critical essays of Nathaniel Mackey for example. Rothenberg has engaged with his critics over these issues with a generosity of spirit and a willingness to examine his own categories of thinking uncommon among poets and critics alike. A bit more exploration of those critical conversations would make this an even better book than the exceptional volume that it already is.
Of far greater value than the products of Rothenberg’s procedures of "total translation" or the epistemological status of his numerology are the poems that these interests brought him to write. In books like Khurbn, Vienna Blood and Poland/1931, Rothenberg has assiduously pursued his experimental poetics and the result is a body of work that readers will be a long time in catching up to. This will not be because the poems are particularly difficult, but because they pursue idioms and lines of thought that lead us outside the narrow confines of mainstream verse culture in America. Meilicke’s study follows Rothenberg as he discovers, in his own words, "the kinds of correspondences/constellations that have been central to modernist & ‘post’ modernist poetry experiments" (qtd. 162). This book is the first extensive charting of a career in poetry that has been paradoxically public and barely known. It is a book for which both poet and readers can give thanks. And, in the end, it is a book that delivers us over and over again to the powers of the verse itself:
the night sky,
as an oven fills with darkness,
the jews inside their cities
lost in sleep. (qtd. 163)
Lines such as these, from "Gematria Five," demonstrate the haunting lyric force that characterizes Rothenberg’s work from start to finish. Meilicke sees this poetry as participating in a "contemporary American-Jewish discourse by constructing a Jewish identity that seeks a dialogue with Otherness" (267). It’s an encounter we have seen before, one we can listen to in the words of Rothenberg’s "12/75 a letter to Paul Celan in memory:"
you said "jew"
& I said "jew"
though neither spoke the jew words
neither the mother language
the vestiges of holy speech
but you said
under your eyebrows
I said "image"
we said "sound
& turned around to
between two languages
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Today's photo comes from the first reading by Robert Creeley I ever attended, at the Folger Shakespeare Library, a venue that, at least in those days, could be counted on to include some of America's more innovative poets along with the usual list of self-absorbed lyric confessors. I had been reading my way through all of Creeley's works, thanks in large part to the large number of remainder book stores that dotted the landscape of D.C. in my student days. My 99 cent hardback copy of WORDS had been a revelation. While I was initially a bit less excited by some of the work in PIECES and AWAY, Creeley rapidly became one of the most important poets to my own evolving aesthetic.
But in my twenties it was all I could do to meekly approach anyone and ask for an autograph.
I got over that, and got to know Creeley relatively well in the following years. On at least a few occasions, he was kind enough to allow me to record his readings for broadcast on the radio program I hosted for five years when I was teaching in San Jose. Creeley was always generous and supportive of my efforts. To my surprise, he would often take time to write an appreciative post card to thank me for having sent him a copy of the poetry newsletter I used to publish, or a small book of poems by a poet I thought he might appreciate, or even just to say a few kind words about a poem of my own he had seen somewhere. I think the last extended conversation we had was at the University of Maine, where we both were reacting to a paper on Williams we had just heard.
ever, whenever-- It won't
be here anymore--
What one supposes
dead is, but what a simple ending . . .
Thursday, June 07, 2007
I've been going through my photo archives recently, deciding what's worthy of rescue. From time to time I'll be posting samples here.
Today's photos record more personal moments from what was for many of my years in D.C. my favorite recurring event, what was then known as the Hispanic Festival. Every summer the streets and parks around Adams Morgan were given over to this grand celebration, capped off each year by a stupendous parade.
as Ornette Coleman used to sing:
"Friends and neighbors, that's where it's at."
Wednesday, June 06, 2007
Last report from Boston -- One of my more pleasant duties in the course of the year's American Literature Association was entirely unrelated to the conference itself. Along with poet/critic Jodi Braxton, I served as an external examiner for a doctoral thesis from the University of Cardiff in Wales. Jodi and I jumped in a cab, had a good catching-up visit along our route, and arrived at a video conference site overlooking the harbor. Over the course of the next hour we had a most productive discussion with the examinee, Lisa Mansell, connected by video with the faculty in Wales.
Lisa's dissertation, titled FORM OF FIX: TRANSATLANTIC SONORITY IN THE MINORITY, comes from a program I wish we had at Penn State, that combines rigorous critical/historical work with creative writing. In Lisa's case, this produced a well-researched essay that brings together critical issues in "minor" languages with studies of race and nationality. One of the many revelations (at least for me) was her tracing of the incredible influence of the Fisk Jubilee Singers on Welsh culture and thinking about issues of language and minority. The essay is followed by 200 pages of some of the most original and provocative poetry I have read in a long time. And this is poetry, albeit lyric, that makes an argument, that carries forward the work of critique begun in the essay.
I fully expect that we'll be seeing much of this work in print, so keep an eye out for the work of Dr. Lisa Mansell, who can be seen in this photo phoning the good news of the successful completion of her defense to the friends back in California. And that's official boyfriend Leroy in the photo with her. After the defense we all retired to our conference hotel for a congratulatory champaign lunch.
Friday, June 01, 2007
[This year's recipient of the Stephen Henderson Award, presented by the African American Literature and Culture Society, is Marilyn Nelson. I was asked to provide a short intorduction prior to Ms. Nelson's reading in Boston. What follows is the text of that introduction.]
In a review of Marilyn Nelson’s selected poems, Miller Williams wrote that he’d be hard put to find a point in any of her poems at which he could comfortably stop reading. Like all Miller’s aesthetic remarks, and indeed like the songs written by his now more famous daughter, Lucinda, this one is far more sly than it first sounds to the ear. The one place at which most readers, fast or slow, would in the normal course of events comfortably stop reading would be the end of the poem. What Williams was pointing up was a simple enough observation of just how it is that the poems of Marilyn Nelson go to work on us. Take this description from THE LIFE OF A SAINT: "He only ate white flowers. Nobody knew what his body smelled like." It’s that last detail that drags us back to the line, the thought of someone so singular that there is nowhere on earth any one who knows the smell of his body. That portends a lone life beyond celibacy, beyond sociality, beyond mortal. Not just such keen details, but the anticipation of such keeness is what moved Miller Williams to discomfort upon the inevitable coming to an end of a book of poems by Marilyn Nelson.
Though she was still far from her first selected when I first knew of her. It was one of those tiny chapbooks, the kind you have to pull off the shelf in the bookstore and turn face front to find out what they are, thanks to the higher technology known in the book world as "saddle stitching;" That tiny text, which then bore the name Marilyn Nelson Waniek, was my first hearing of this poet. I did not then know that Nelson and Nielsen were one day to meet around a podium in Boston. Marilyn Nelson once taught in Denmark, where the bulk of us Nielsens reside. There she translated the great Danish children’s poet Halfdan Rasmussen, and went on to translate the poetry of Inge Pederson. All of that I came to know much later. Indeed, it was only because I happened to have fallen in with the broad underground of children’s literature specialists that I came to know of Marilyn Nelson’s fame as an author for children and young adults. Anybody who wrote something called THE CAT WALKED THROUGH THE CASSEROLE is forever in my good graces.
But that first chapbook had brought me something very different, a poetry that, in its intense engagement with family and history, called to mind such predecessor poets as Lucille Clifton. And just there was a striking thing – not that an African American poet would be as at home translating Danish children’s verse as writing of her own family history, but that such a thing was at all striking in the first place. Had everyone forgotten Nella Larsen, I once asked, and, then, it appeared everybody had. Still, that breadth of travel and experience is itself the veriest tip of the Nelson iceberg.
Born in Cleveland, a graduate of the University of California at Davis as well as the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Minnesota, Nelson began her writing life in childhood, expecting since sixth grade, she explained in one interview, that she had to become a poet. It was from reading her father’s old college poetry textbooks, she told the same interviewer (and how many of us had fathers who had old college poetry textbooks in the house?) That she derived a considerable part of her early ethical training, and here, too, is something I’d like to underscore. It may be, as Williams tells us, that it’s hard to get the news from poetry, but that very hardness is a lesson in the ethical that only poetry brings. And that lyric ethic has been Nelson’s life-long pursuit, through books such as FOR THE BODY, MAMA’S PROMISES, THE HOMEPLACE, MAGNIFICAT and THE FIELDS OF PRAISE. Alongside those achievements were those well versed volumes for the young, CARVER: A LIFE IN POEMS and the aforementioned casserole walking cat. With this impressive record of publication have come honors, including the Annisfield-Wolf Award, a Flora Stieglitz Straus Award, the Boston Globe/ Horn Book Award, the Pushcart Prize, NEA writing fellowships, a Fulbright, the Connecticut Arts Award and, an honor that must indeed be seen as a career capstone for a Professor at the University of Connecticut, the Poet Laureateship of the State of Connecticut. Please welcome Marilyn Nelson.