Sunday, November 30, 2008

I was on the road when I saw Ron Silliman's note on his blog about the new issue of Ken Warren's HOUSE ORGAN -- but there it was waiting for me in the mail box when I got back -- My poem in this issue is a tribute to Dewey Redman, extraordinary artist of the tenor sax and a fine composer.

Write to Warren at the address shown here for subscription info -- 

Friday, November 28, 2008

CLICK HERE for small sample of "Bluesville," played by Jimmy Heath

and click AMAZON to download a copy of the song


We don't get nearly enough live jazz in either Santa Barbara or State College, so I was especially happy to get a ticket to see the Jimmy Heath Quartet in a rare visit to Penn State's Schwab Auditorium

I'd last seen Jimmy Heath, and brother "Tootie," more than a decade earlier in Los Angeles, at the wondrous series of afternoon concerts that were hosted (free!) by the Museum of Contemporary Art.

I knew that listening to the Heath brothers at Schwab would be truly distant from listening to them under the Southern California sun, standing in the shade of a huge sculpture, surrounded by generations of jazz fans.

Still, both Heaths proved every bit as energetic as the much younger sidemen they broguht along on piano and bass.

The lineup this night was:

Jimmy Heath: tenor and soprano saxophones
Albert "Tootie" Heath: drums and other percussion
Jeb Patton: piano
David Wong: bass
Favorite line of the evening -- Jimmy Heath at the conclusion of the band's first number:

"That was a piece called 'Winter Sleeves,' patterned after 'Autumn Leaves,' written by me . . . . so I could collect the royalties."

Monday, November 24, 2008


[but things have been changing at Vanderbilt, even in the short time since I visited Nashville for the College Language Association just a few years ago. One sign of those changes was the invitation I received from the MSA conference organizers at Vanderbilt to join a round table on the question of Robert Penn Warren's 1965 book, Who Speaks for the Negro? Last year I spoke on a panel organized by Michael Bibby that addressed issues of race in the construction of Modernist studies; I saw this year's round table as furthering the conversation that Michael had so ably gotten rolling.
Vanderbilt has posted digital files of many of the original tape recordings of the interviews Warren conducted while researching this strange book. You can find some of those recordings at this site.
Thanks to Al Filreis and company, you can aslo listen to a previous panel on this subject, hosted by the University of Pennsylvania, at this link.]
And here is the opening of my own discussion at MSA, beginning with a couple of call and response epigraphs:

"Nigger, your breed ain’t metaphysical."
"Pondy Woods" - Robert Penn Warren

"Cracker, your breed ain’t exegetical."
– response from Sterling Brown

Returning to Robert Penn Warren’s Who Speaks for the Negro from a hiatus of some two decades, I found myself tracking my rereading against a mental checklist I had not realized I was keeping. When Warren took note of the desultory attempts to try Byron de la Beckwith for his murder of Medgar Evers, I was able from my later vantage point to note (in the very margin next to the place where Warren remarks, "The jury . . . was again hung. There has been no third trial") that de la Beckwith had been tried a third time, and at long last brought to the justice white Mississippi had conspired to abet him in eluding. When Warren mentioned the then young Lawrence Guyot, tireless community organizer of the Mississippi Project, I could not only compare Warren’s descriptions to my own meeting with Guyot just this past April at a conference on the Arts in the Civil Rights Era, I could recall how Guyot’s presence had been pointed out at the convocation in Denver of the Democratic National Committee, how Guyot had been honored as one who had worked to bring about this astonishing political moment in America. When Warren referred to the courageous field reporting of David Halberstam, I reread with the new knowledge that even Halberstam had been placed under FBI surveillance that would continue for decades. I also, though, found that I kept thinking of Sterling Brown, an author far less celebrated than Warren, and how he had responded to Warren’s renewed conversation with "the Negro."

On April 3, 1965, Sterling Brown wrote a letter to the editors of Look magazine, having just read a preview of Warren’s work published under the title, "The Negro Now." Apparently Warren had indeed found a new Negro, and a new voice with which to speak. Brown writes:

The eloquent thoughtfulness of Robert Penn Warren's "The Negro Now" (Look, March 23) convinces us that Mr. Warren has progressed since his early career when he portrayed John Brown as a horse-stealing, murderous fanatic, and when, in "The Briar Patch," he trembled at the dire results of literal education for Negroes. Mr. Warren's analysis of the shock treatment that the "book-reading white Southerners" are undergoing is trenchant, and his adjuration to us all, Negro and white, to struggle for our own freedom is as welcome as needed.

Nevertheless, Mr. Warren clings to regional superstitions: e.g. the canard about the difference between North and South which "lumps" with a vengeance. A lingering theme song dear to the southern agrarians sets forth the antislavery elements in the Old South, and doughface elements in the Old North. Still we must be grateful for small favors and some of the favors of Mr. Warren (now an authority on segregation and the thoughts of the Negro) are by no means small.

Apparently Brown expanded on these views at a conference, prompting a quick note from critic Hoyt Fuller:

I also want desperately to know the book (and the passage, if possible) from which you quoted the inestimable Mr. Robert Penn Warren during the conference. I'm dying to get my hands on that book. Mr. Warren is getting away with murder these days, capitalizing on his new-found religion, but he should have to eat those old words.

We can understand that Brown and Fuller might want Warren to eat more crow than he does in Who Speaks for the Negro; we can imagine they might want him to eat that buzzard from "Pondy Woods." But I think it’s important to recognize that at least some of their frustration had to do with the disparity between what they saw of the public reception of Warren’s book and what they knew of the difficulties actually existing Negroes faced in trying to speak for themselves. Brown had signed an earlier letter to the Washington Evening Star, with his usual dose of irony, "A Southern (Negro -- born in D.C) Moderate." Brown had also signed off on a much earlier project in which black public intellectuals provided any number of good answers to the question in Warren’s title some two decades before Warren published his book, Rayford Logan’s edited volume What the Negro Wants. Seeing the acclaim that greeted Warren’s late arriving news while still smarting from the memory of the Logan book’s history must have been nearly as much as Brown could bear.

The University of North Carolina Press had contracted with Rayford Logan for the collection that came to be titled What the Negro Wants. It would seem from the press’s response to the manuscript, though, that they didn’t really want to hear what the Negro wanted. One reader’s report had complained that the volume did not give sufficient time to considerations of how "far the Negro is responsible for his condition." The appropriately named "O.J. Coffin" suggested that the press bury the book, complaining that the contributors "talk of intermarriage and world congresses of Negroes as nonchalantly as Walrus and Carpenter might discuss cabbages and kings." Coffin, we learn from Kenneth Janken’s introduction to a reprint of Logan’s book, returned his reader’s fee, asking that it be given to some Negro charity. N.C. Newbold worried in his report about the harm that Logan’s collection might do, advised the deletion of any and all references to intermarriage, and suggested that if the book were to appear at all, it should come before the public accompanied by an unprecedented introduction from the university press itself detailing the Southern majority’s stance on the issues taken up by these speaking Negroes. William Terry Couch, the director of the University of North Carolina Press, wrote to Logan upon digesting the manuscript’s appeals for an end to segregation: "If this is what the Negro wants, nothing could be clearer than that what he needs, and needs most urgently, is to revise his wants." Eventually, Logan, who read his contracts as closely as Sterling Brown read poems, threatened the press with a law suit, and the book finally appeared, with Brown’s own essay "Count Us In" closing out the collection.

Small wonder then that Sterling Brown, like so many others of his time, found Warren’s belated ameliorationist narrative a bit much to take so late as 1965.

Saturday, November 22, 2008


This is the sight that greeted me as I arrived at the hotel for this year's conference of the Modernist Studies Association. It wasn't raining all that hard just yet, but the lions of modernity were taking no chances.
I'd last been at this hotel just a few years ago for a meeting of the College Language Association. Vanderbilt University is directly across the street from the hotel's front door. The hotel is named, in fact, after its adjacency to Vanderbilt. Still, on that earlier occasion I never saw a single member of the Vanderbilt English department cross that street to meet with his fellows from the HBCUs and elsewhere. You'd have thought we were still in the age of such Vanderbilt faculty as Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren.

But this year things were markedly different for modernism; Vanderbilt was hosting the event. More about that in a subsequent post.

Things got off to a great start as several of the poetically inclined met together to incline over drinks at the Corner Bar, convened by our good friend Tom Orange. A number of our poets, though, not yet having joined the GPS crowd, wound up at the Corner Pub, which was indeed on another corner. We didn't piece all that together till late night when emails from poets trying to find each other revealed the mix-up, revelled in the mash-up.

The standout panel for me was one organized by Linda Kinnahan that felt alomost like a continuation of the Lifting Belly conference from September. This panel addressed issues in the writings of Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy and Lorine Niedecker. There were many other notable things at this year's MSA, including the presence of two (count 'em!), two papers on Melvin B. Tolson. One of these was by Kathy Lou Schultz, poet-editor-critic. Tisa Bryant was also on that panel. Sadly for me, it was the same time as my own round table, so I had to miss that one.

As we departed from Nashville, we found that keynote speaker Fred Jameson had tricked out the lions in postmodern drag.
This somehow made me ask the question inscribed on that green wrist band you can see in one of the photos above: "What would Gaudier-Brezka do?"

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


This is the end of The Alphabet, by Ron Silliman:

A gray sky is flat but a blue one extends forever
Suddenly a wave of cricket song
The constant weave of birds
Insect so small on the rim of my cap
The angle of my pen as it brushes this page

This is the end of The End of the Alphabet, by Claudia Rankine:

go away,       night sky, did we come this far together?
I am cold. And in this next breath,
the same waking,

the same hauling of debris.  I am
here in the skin of . . . otherwise) shoveling out, dryly.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

David Wagoner at Penn State

Penn State recently hosted a centenary celebration of the life and work of Theodroe Roethke, who had taught here for a period before his removal to the great Northwest.  The celebration included student and faculty readings, a lecture on Roethke's Penn State years, a concert performance of settings of Roethke poems (including work by Ned Rorem) and a memorial reading by 

David Wagoner, who had been among Roethke's students here.  One surprise was the appearance in Wagoner's audience of another former student who had been in the same class for its weekly meetings in Room #201 more than a half century ago.  Wagoner brought his usual quietly conversational work, but read primarily from things directly related to his relationship with Roethke, including passages from Roethke's extensive notebooks and a scene from a play Wagoner had written about Roethke as teacher.

I was asked to provide an introduction for Wagoner's appearance -- so here it is:

“Palindrome: Inside Out”

Cat loves mouse
(If death is romance)
And pat and pounce
Become pounce and pat
And romance is death
If mouse loves cat.

Perhaps an odd place to begin an introduction to David Wagoner, this small poem from his 1981 collection Landfall, a book  most often cited for its powerful attention to the natural world, but in addition to foregrounding Wagoner’s mastery of form, and aside from the way in which this little lyric demonstrates just how, as one blurb writer has it, unsentimental is his view of the natural, who can deny that this is perhaps the best description we are likely to have any time soon of the chain of spectacular events marking the just-concluded presidential election campaign.

In fact, I was immediately reminded of this poem as I sat in an airport and watched a nearby television broadcast  news of the nomination of Governor Palin.  Like so many others in the lower 48, I had never heard of her before; like most lovers of poetry, I instinctively started looking for signs and wonders hidden in the letters of her name.  The only anagrammatic amusement I could find there was the noun “lapin,” which didn’t seem to offer much ideological food for thought, though it does work with the cat and mouse play of Wagoner’s poem.  Turning to my community of poet friends, I asked if anyone had a palindrome or a palinode that might offer solace in our economy of troubles.  It was only then that I found the “Palindrome” web site, which turned out to be a fake Sarah Palin on-line diary.  

Wagoner’s poem may be read allegorically, but it could never be read without laughter, and this is the too-little credited aspect of his work I wanted to begin by celebrating.  Then too, it is something he shared with Theodore Roethke.  On May 1, 1953, Roethke wrote from Italy to Arabel Porter, on the staff of New American Library publishers, concerning, among other projects, the selection of “Five American Poets” they planned to print in the next edition of New World Writing.  “I take it that you want to run the poems from our group of first choices,” writes Roethke, then naming them: Kunitz, Roethke, Garrigue, Waggoner (which Roethke types with an extraneous “g”), Kallman.  “Have these characters been informed about this,” he asks, as if he had not just listed himself among those “characters.”  He proceeds to argue that he perhaps should not write an introductory note for the selection.  “The fact that I’m in the group myself seems to inhibit me.  Understand: I’ll do it, if you want.  I’m just trying to be honest and, possibly even gentlemanly, for a change.”

Another trait Wagoner shares with Roethke, and indeed with their mutual  precursor Wallace Stevens, is a characteristic wedding of wit and severe epistemology.  It should be noted that Roethke was not always an admirer of Stevens.  He once told another former student, James Wright, that he thought Stevens overrated.  “I get so tired of Stevens’ doodling with a subject-matter–the same subject matter.”  And yet where can we find a better illustration of Stevens’ ghostlier demarcations and keener sounds than Roethke’s own “The Light Comes Brighter”?  That poem of Wagoner’s singled out by Roethke for inclusion in New World Writing soon reappeared in Wagoner’s 1958 A Place to Stand. Also found there is the still insistently contemporary and very Stevensian “The Man from the Top of the Mind.”  Published eight years before Philp K. Dick was to ask readers if Androids Dream of Electric Sheep Wagoner’s poem anticipates the automaton of our own dreaming:

we will falter here 

When the automaton pretends to dream
And turns in rage upon our horrible shapes–
Those nightmares, trailing shreds of his netherworld,
Who must be slaughtered backward into time.

So, admittedly an eccentric place from which to launch a hearing of David Wagoner, but perhaps Penn State, where he was in the ROTC and from which he graduated, I am told,  in three years, might seem to some an eccentric launching pad for a poet so intimately identified with the NorthWest, who, indeed, edited Poetry Northwest for more than three decades.  But Penn State, it seems, reaches everywhere, and while in Wagoner’s memory his first crossing of the Cascades was a “real change of consciousness,” it may well be that Happy Valley played a role in forming the consciousness that changed as it crossed yet another ridge.

Since his android dream, Wagoner has published by my count at least twenty-one additional volumes of poetry, including the most recent, A Map of the Night.  He has authored ten novels, one of which, The Escape Artist, was made into a feature film by no less a producer than Francis Ford Coppola.  Wagoner has won the Pushcart Prize, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, the Ruth Lilly Award and the English-Speaking Union prize, among his many honors. He has served as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.  And he has not only been a prodigy as a student here, he has been on our faculty.  I admit to a certain shock at the realization that a quarter of a century has now passed since I first saw him read his poetry at the Library of Congress.  In those days, I could well have been the young poet of his “Ode to the Muse on Behalf of a Young Poet.”  “Madam,” Wagoner begins, “he thinks you’ve become his lover.  He doesn’t know you’re his landlady.”

Please join me in welcoming the return of one of Theodroe Roethke’s “characters,” one who is still beloved by the muse, David Wagoner.

Monday, November 10, 2008


Miriam Makeba

March 4, 1932 - November 10, 2008

I first saw Miriam Makeba when I was still in my teens.  She was a featured performer in a festival called JAZZ RUNS AT LAUREL, held on the grounds of the Laurel Race Track in the Maryland suburbs outside D.C.  The festival was wide-ranging -- It was also the first time I saw bag-pipes-playing Rufus Harley -- The first time Roberta Flack was in front of a huge audience after her many nights playing at Mr. Henry's.  Jimmy Smith was there -- The Farmer/Lewis big band -- and Miriam Makeba, fresh off her hit record PATA PATA.  Years earlier she'd had a hit with the CLICK SONG, which she also performed at Laurel.  Makeba had recently married Stokeley Carmichael, who came out and took a bow -- He still had lots of friends in the area from his Howard University days, and so was warmly received.

Makeba's performance was stunning -- and she interacted with her audience as if we were all just good friends trading riffs.  I still remember how she introduced her band.  As she named each of her backup singers, she would identify where in Africa each came from.  Then she named one more singer and told us "She is from Africa by way of West Virginia."

Miriam Makeba was a life-long ambassador to the world, an activist artist of strong principles and even stronger talents.

Sunday, November 09, 2008


"The festive scenes of liberation that Dick Cheney had once imagined for Iraq were finally taking place -- in cities all over America." -- Frank Rich