. . . Jack Spicer

. . .

A day late and a dollar short: I thought I had posted "Three Anagrams of Jack Spicer's Biography" on the site some time ago, but I guess not....

Like most of my favorite poets, Spicer doesn't get taught much in English departments. Unlike the others, he hated the idea of being taught in English departments, and intentionally sabotaged possiblities of wider recognition during his lifetime. Given what English departments do to the poets they teach, he may have had a point.

. . .

The Information Supergayway

Start to Shine for Thirty-Nine!
Browse the home stages! Visit the virtual communities! Surf the globe!
  • Headless girl!
  • Large horse!
  • Octopus wrestler!
  • Life-like painting of a beautiful woman!
  • Snake!
  • Naked ladies in cowboy boots!
  • Midget Village!
  • Live babies in incubators!
  • Television City, "The City of Tomorrow"!
  • Greenwich Village!
  • The Holy Land!
  • Estonia!
  • Scotland!
  • Panama, home of dancing girls!
Leave a message on the Voice Recording Machines!
Jack Glicken, Chief Of Police for Midget Village...
... who bears a striking resemblance to a later resident of the Gayway, Jack Spicer.

. . .

What proofs did Bloom adduce to prove that his tendency was towards applied, rather than towards pure, science?
Insofar as wise critics have looked at science fiction, critical wisdom has it that the genre's most distinctive form is the series, and particularly the "fix-up": the novel built up of mostly-previously-published more-or-less integrated more-or-less independent short stories and novellas.

"I do not like that other world"

"More-or-less" being the distinguishing factor here. The close relationship of the pulp magazine and pulp novel industries led to many hero-glued fix-ups in other genres of popular fiction (Dashiell Hammett's and Raymond Chandler's early novels, for example); the short attention spans of protosurrealists, pseudosurrealists, and other artistes-fines led to a number of single-hero multiple-narrative (Maldoror, Miss Lonelyhearts) and single-narrative multiple-hero (As I Lay Dying) assortments.

"After God, [insert name] has created most..."

But what defines sf is not a peculiar approach to character or narrative but a peculiar attention to the implied context of the fiction. This implied context is usually called the work's "world," as in the quintessential sf skill "world building" or the quintessential sf hackwork "shared world" writing. Because the constructed context is what defines a "work" of sf, a single sf "work" can cover a great deal of time-space ground (as in Robert Heinlein's "future history") and incorporate many different lead characters and closed narratives.

"He's dead nuts on that. And the retrospective arrangement."

Given a long enough lifetime, sf authors sometimes start to wonder if all their worlds might somehow be "shared" in the all-in-one person of the author: Isaac Asimov's attempt to combine his Foundation universe with his Robotics universe to make Asimov Universe TM; Samuel R. Delany's multi-decade cross-genre remarks toward the modular calculus....

"...if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book."

Outside the sf genre, what this reminds me most of are Jack Spicer's notion of the "serial poem," Louis Zukofsky's notion that a poet's lifetime of work is best considered as one long work, and James Joyce.

(... further reflections generated by the essays in A Collideorscape of Joyce: Festschrift For Fritz Senn ...)

As Jacques Aubert points out in "Of Heroes, Monsters and the Prudent Grammartist," child Joyce's writerly ambition, like that of many genre workers, was fired by reading heroic adventure stories: "Madam, I never eat muscatel grapes." And, also like many genre writers, Joyce continued (would "compulsively" be too strong a word?) to use the notion of the heroic (alongside the notion of author-as-trademark) as an organizing principle while undercutting it with a self-awareness that ranged from scathingly bitter to comically nostalgic.

In "Dubliners and the Accretion Principle" Zack Bowen very convincingly treats the collection of mostly-previously-published stories Dubliners "as a single unified work... the stories so interrelated as to form a type of single narrative" with a clear structural pattern and a loose but extensive web of inter-episode linkages. (A biographical tidbit unmentioned by Bowen backs this up: Joyce knew "After the Race" was a weak story but felt compelled to include it to save the overall shape of the book: a common architectural problem for the fix-up author.)

On the next hand, Christine van Boheemen's "'The cracked lookingglass' of Joyce's Portrait" makes a case for breaking apart A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, since all the chapters use the same semi-self-contained bump-down-and-bounce-up narrative structure rather than gliding smooth-and-steady towards maturity: "Instead of psychological and emotional growth, the fiction depicts repetition." Each episode imagines itself to be first, last, only and alone whereas it is neither first nor last nor only nor alone in a series originating in and repeated to infinity.... Van Boheemen's approach would imply that the "final" flight to Paris on the wings of artistic vocation is merely another roundabout to the next repetition. And Stephen's bedraggled comedown in Ulysses, so embarrassing to those who pictured him ascending to glory at an angle of fortyfive degrees like a shot off a shovel, certainly seems to give her approach the edge.

There hasn't been much need to remind readers of the heterogeneity of Ulysses, starting from its serialization episode by episode, each episode a chronologically, thematically, and stylistically closed unit. (Are there any other novels for which we refer to "episodes" by title rather than to "chapters" by number?) Timothy Martin reminds us again anyway in "Ulysses as a Whole" that inasmuch as anything can be said to tie the book together it's a shared context -- implicitly an externally documented day in the world, explicitly the inter-episode allusions and reflections, "many of them added late in the book's composition."

As always, the limiting case is Finnegans Wake, whose compositional history also includes serial publication and last-minute blanket-tucking additions. But here the repetition and fragmentation go simultaneously down and up the scale to such an extent that almost no one ever reads the book except as scattered sentence-to-page-sized episodes semi-explained by references to other episodes: "holograms" and "fractals" became rhetorical commonplaces for Wake scholars as quickly as for sf writers.

Maybe that's why Exiles seems like such a flimsy anomaly: it's a self-contained traditionally structured single work where a revue or a burlesque show might have felt more appropriate....

. . .

Continental Divide

Excerpts from a poem by Frank O'Hara

what does San Francisco have
that we don't have
a volunteer Fire Department and a Skid Row
you're like a wall that shuts out all the sunshine from the park
I don't want to be but I am

Look, a knife has just dropped into the ocean.

Frank O'Hara
Jack Spicer Excerpts from a letter by Jack Spicer

any letter written from/to NYC is full of worms.

They made it utterly impossible to identify God. They purged history of contemporary reference.

Religion is the shadow of the obvious. On holidays you can see the shadow that the thing casts.

When you rush bravely against the mirror shouting 'This is also my universe' you are likely merely to get a bloody nose. That surface has no patience with violence.

... the violence of the impatient artist

. . .

To unclench our previous entry on the transformation of Insider Art to Outsider Art....

The process can always be side-stepped by looking at artifacts as History: History, like Cheese, is capable of digesting all. But inasmuch as we try to keep our receptiveness aesthetic instead of historical -- focused on surface pleasure rather than background book-larnin' -- when faced with an artifact imported from outside our assumed position, narrative impulse veers us towards seeing the alien context as the alienated individual and the artist as Outsider (rather than ourselves as Importer).

Some examples:

To be fair, one reason Spicer's group allegiance doesn't stick to his reputation is that his group was so dismal. Which brings up the biggest problem with deciding that you're not going to rest easy with being a solitary crackpot: who you end up with. I mean, the insular self-absorption of an attic painter or bedroom songwriter at least tends to make a talentless crank more affable. The real problem is when talentless cranks band into an insular group, cheering on each other's mediocrity and adding an ugly self-righteous odor to their formerly fairly innocuous waste product.

And unless you're talking bestsellers and movie deals and posters on bathroom walls, it's awfully hard to be sure you've made it off an insular group and onto the mainland. "Professional" or not, in my cartography, the arts and book reviewers of the semi-major media look just as self-congratulatory and determinedly deluded as any communal gallery, small press magazine, indie rock scene, little theater group, or crosslinking weblog....

. . .


As a certified holder of a Bachelor of Mathematics certificate, I can confidently assert that rationality exists only as a way to juggle all the words one feels compelled to throw into the air. But even that certificate is no guarantee of success, and the Outsider Art go-round left a hatchet, a raw egg, and a beach ball on my face.

Most of the muddle was caused by my smudging across questions of production (what do we notice? what attitude do we take? what markets do we approach?) and questions of consumption (how do we notice? how do we understand? how do we enjoy?) as if all of 'em were one big really dumb question.

Thus, Doug Asherman points out that I claim that the worst thing is the formation and mutual support of a mediocre group, when the really REALLY worst thing is when the mediocre group manages to convince larger groups to take it even more seriously than it takes itself.

Regarding "insularity," David Chess suggests

that there is no "mainland" at all, except in the sense of a particularly large (or visible, or well-funded, or populous) island.
(In fact when we're talking The New York Review of Books it's not even that large an island; it's just that the islanders think it's centrally located.... Minifesto: I'm not sure that a decentered self is necessary for ethical living, but I'm pretty sure that a decentered self-image is.)

And giving David Auerbach the last long word:

With all respect, I want to reframe your insider/outsider argument, because I'm not eager to see another generation of writers inspired by Colin Wilson's The Outsider willing themselves into solipsistic states of media attention and minor celebrity. I'd like to displace the insider/outsider dichotomy into the realm of 'material'. There's a quote from John Crowley's review of Lanark that I'm thinking of:
It is more like the great homemade books, the all-encompassing works that have always been constructed not of mainstream materials but of the author's own peculiar mud and straw: Pilgrim's Progress, say, or Branch Cabell's Jurgen.
I'm willing to admit that the considerations of the intellectual market matter only once you've rejected the satisfactoriness of Borges' "Secret Miracle" [....] But at that point the question of whether the creation of something was approached from the insider or outsider standpoint is more one of idiom than anything else. Or to put it another way, you can't be Kaspar Hauser and Ian Curtis at the same time. (And for a different take, I just read the conclusion of Kim Deitch's latest serial in Zero Zero, which "solves" the problem under discussion by inverting both Heinlein's "Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" and Charles Fort -- rather than "We are property," it is "We are entertainment.")

But the outsider brand, in its two forms--

--From without--

The Jack Spicer bit is priceless, but all those "Crazy Buddhist art. Crazy Hindu art. Crazy Medieval German art." fall more under the rubric of exotica rather than "outsiderism," I'd say. What the two have in common is a desire to attach the label of foreignness to the work. I think this is less a narrative conceit (as you say) than an impulse on behalf of both the producers & consumers to mythologize & escape. And it's going on contemporaneously too: what Richard Ford & David Foster Wallace have in common is a mythologizing of everyday materials, albeit in very different form. It's not very good mythologizing (Richard Yates did it best, and most honestly, in my view), but it's still an updated variant on what Mailer, Updike, Oates, and the rest of those geezers have been earning accolades for for years. The dominant short story paradigm in most of the anthologies these days seems to be (1) the "I'm so real" Carver-derived approach of Tilghman, Offutt, and many others whose names I've forgotten, or (2) the creepy, sub-supernatural angstploitation of Lorrie Moore, Ann Beattie, David Gates, and I suppose Russell Banks. Both are variants on the same impulse to impose a private "outsider" view on ordinary materials through sheer will -- because that's the only thing that can make it worthwhile. It's a lousy approach. I think the consequent turn to the exotic stems from the same cause -- when people get fed up with the fakery of the above, they turn to the irreducibly foreign.

And then there's people like our friend Jandek who apparently achieve some level of commodification by being fetishized by collectors, and the ensuing debate over whether he and others are the "real [foreign] thing" or not. It's very important to the consumers that they are -- what could he possibly have to say if he were just like you and me?

Granted, I think America (north and south) is more prone to mythology than the Europeans or Asians (hence our great legacy of comic books & comic strips!), but the current crop of writers is too civilized to do it honestly. So while they're too self-conscious to apply the label to themselves even as they incorporate it into their fiction, those who feel it...

--From within--

still don't use it as a primary marker in their work, though they may try. I look at Bruno Schulz's work and compare it to Beckett's, and while I see them trying for similar effects, I think Beckett is more successful. This despite Schulz's Kafka-like isolation and Beckett's (relative) integration into the various scenes around him. I'm tempted to see the issue, then, as irrelevant to the quality of the work being produced -- though it may just be that Beckett was just such a prima facie genius to everyone around him that he could have been totally maladjusted and still fit in.

Thomas Bernhard, on the other hand, is a writer who I think really hurt his work by being so socially involved in Austrian theater and politics, but I don't think that it was socialization per se that damages his books so much as an innate desire to throw obscene epithets at other people. With or without the opportunity to hurl them from a respected position in Austrian letters, I think his work would've suffered the same.

. . .

"The city redefined becomes a church." - Jack Spicer
  Built of solid glass. The temple out there in the weeds and California wildflowers. Out of position. A place where we worship words.

See through into like it is not possible with flesh only by beginning not to be a human being. Only by beginning not to be a soul.

A sole worshipper. And the flesh is important as it rubs into itself your soleness. Or California. A division of where one is.

Where one is is in a temple that sometimes makes us forget that we are in it. Where we are is in a sentence.

Where we are this is idiocy. Where we are a block of solid glass blocks us from all we have dreamed of. But this place is not where we are we are to meet them.


. . .

Jack Spicer Is Dead, Alas

And when he was my teaching assistant, there was a course that I think was a model course that probably isn't taught anymore at Berkeley, a course called "Writing in Connection with Reading Important Books of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries." It's a very pretentious title. But the idea was that the student would read the book and would then write a paragraph showing the relationship between the book and what the student wrote, and what the student wrote could be poetry, fiction, essays, or a critique of the book, anything they wanted. Now, I had what I thought was a pretty substantial list, but when Jack came in he added all sorts of things. For instance, he added a whole section on science fiction, and that was very good because there is very good writing in that genre. And it was good for the students to read it, and it was good for them to try and do something parallel if they wanted to. But Jack was the perfect assistant to that class, and he extended the course, made more things possible. He was very sympathetic with students. The only student he didn't like was one who was writing stories that would go into the New Yorker. And it wasn't anybody who actually wrote stories later for the New Yorker, but that's what they were like. But anything else was OK with him.

Thomas Parkinson interviewed by Jack Foley, 1991
Talisman 10, Fall 1993

. . .


Flemish panel, early 16th Century

Isn't it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off his clothes and showing his shortcomings?
David Niven

So a dead form with a glamorous reputation attracts nostalgic losers from both the decayed and the arriviste classes.

Like that should be a surprise.

I often like the lumpen upstarts and often dislike the aristos.

Like that should be a surprise either. Naturally, the lowbred will be attracted to high art (or to low art, for that low matter) for reasons unique to our station. Thalia shows different faces to Dobie Gillis and to Milton Armitage.

And it's hardly surprising that art can entangle us in the ratlines of class mobility (or, from our betters' point of view, slumming). Our senses divide into the communicative and the communicable, either broadcast ready or requiring physical contact. We could talk of "good eye" or "good ear," but those are idioms of technique; instead, in aesthetic matters we talk of "good taste." Intimate, risky, invasive, animal: Taste is cheap, but offers an entrance, albeit to one's own biology rather than to exclusive social circles.

Well, I'm easily astonied, I guess. And I haven't always loved the experience: unable to let go, unable to trust the handhold....

There is something scarily presumptuous (or, from our betters' point of view, demeaning; or, from Jack Spicer's point of view, distracting) about the act of publication. Success seems either fraud or betrayal, and failure's not much better.

But if I bit my tongue, how would I taste?

. . .

Now it feels all lumped up again.. JAIL

Lawrence L. White writes that our recent serial on comic poetry glanced off a thought much on his mind:

What if the non-sequitur were a legitimate figure of speech?

I take this thought to be a lesson of Gertrude Stein's work. I'm sure Mr. Weinberger counts Stein among the better angels. "Cubist simultaneity" would be her invite to the party. But one thing perplexes me about his list of virtues: two of them are based directly on pictures, and maybe even the third (one creative writing teacher suggested to us that dreams were more like rebuses than stories). None of them are about language. & I thought the lesson we all got from Cezanne was that your medium was the truest path into the problem.

[...] I do mean the "what if" part seriously. There's an odd triumphalism to a lot of Language poetry proponence. As if it really did move mountains. Now I'm not saying that Stein wasn't one heck of a triumphalist, but the parts I like (there are plenty available) are when she's wondering if she's managed to get her latest contraption off the ground yet & if so how long it's going to stay airborne.

Seriously or not, I'm not sure a what-if is necessary. The non-sequitur, like other approaches to nonsense, is already "a legitimate figure of speech" in the living language. It only seems exceptional within the bounds of purposefully restricted discourses such as funeral orations, or shareholder reports. To bring it into those restricted areas isn't to overcome the quotidian but to enrich (or corrupt) with the quotidian.

True, the power fantasies of poets and theorists (and science fiction writers and superhero comics and hiphop MCs and so on) are laughable. But, far from being an attack or a defeat, deflation reveals the true nature of their achievements.

And, as you say, worrying aloud about the impression one's making while in the midst of purposefully restricted discourse is a deflationary technique mastered by Gertrude Stein as well as Robert Benchley. (Which may hint at why my readings of Derrida have been unusually benign.)

I'm aware of my tongue! Unable to stop fretting about one's own place in one's own medium -- doesn't that send us back to Cézanne's school?

Before and beyond any other response they might elicit, Manet's paintings (like Stein's writings) were funny, mocked (more-or-less warmly) even by friends and supporters. Accordingly, the affections of caricaturists and parodists often sided with their irresistible target rather than with their hostile employers. Marcel Duchamp said that when he was a cartoonist hanging out with other cartoonists (not to insinuate that Duchamp ever stopped being a cartoonist), "The conversation centered above all on Manet. The great man that he was." Or, in Baudelaire's reassuring words, "the first in the decrepitude of your art."

I'm trying to avoid terms like "Postmodernism" -- John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, found the lyric stance as distressingly risible as Frank O'Hara or Jack Spicer ever did. But I suppose it might be true that one would need ever higher doses of delusion to avoid self-consciousness after the printer's devil has stopped tapping at the casement window for new installments. Just us and the medium, all alone by the telephone.

. . .

Flogging the Dead Bardic Mule, concluded

In a work-in-progress, John Holbo applies to contemporary theorists a quote from William Empson, describing John Donne's appeal:

"'Argufying' is perhaps a tiresomely playful word, but it makes my thesis more moderate; I do not deny that thoroughly conscientious uses of logic could become a distraction from poetry. Argufying is the kind of arguing we do in ordinary life, usually to get our own way.... This has always been one of the things people enjoy in poems; and it can be found in every period of English literature."
Holbo, Auerbach, White: What all three of these readers dislike in contemporary academic cultural writing is the stultifying reign of a few approved flavors of argufying. Myself, I think I'd be pleased with any of these outcomes, since I think all of them are capable of producing more of what I enjoy.

The thing about cycles of fashion, though, is that even when you know they're inevitable and fun and all that, you can't really summon up hearty enthusiasm for tight skirts and high heels the third time round. (I mean, not if you like women to be able to walk places.) A dose of Empson might be healthy for kids nowadays, but I associate him with a stultifying effect of his own: snobbish conservatism, with many a dismissal of post-Portrait James Joyce, and medicine-man William Carlos Williams the only barbarian allowed through the institutional gates.

Remembering that Empson was Donne imitator before Donne critic, let's think a bit about that argufication of his.

A poem was once just another way to deliver a message. For some time now, though, a poem has instead been above all else a poetic artifact: the form is the essential thing about it, for reader and writer both. (Have you ever noticed how many twentieth-century-plus poems mention the words "poetry" or "poem"? I recommend that you don't, 'cause once you start, it's irritating as a neighbor who plays the same Rush album every day.) That's a very different experience of poetry. And, like it or not, it's the one we've got. When was the last time that even a poet had their opinion swayed by a political poem, for example?

When Jack Spicer or Frank O'Hara "plead their case" in a poem, they acknowledge (miserably or lightly) the scare quotes: no one will really be swayed by their plea; their case isn't really the case of the poem; in fact, the poem frankly doesn't care about them one way or the other. When the New Critic poets plead their case in a poem, they sound like they expect us to pretend that they hope someone will believe them, and to give them extra credit for attempting the delusion. That's a lot of zombie-raising to go through just to hear some melodious groans.

. . .

Pull in Your Head - We're Coming to a Tunnel

I haven't read Theory's Empire, and I don't intend to at least until after I've read the Harry Potter novels. (I'm glad that Scott Eric Kaufman did, though.)

"Theory" isn't an empire. It has no army or navy. It's a loose and squabbling graph of autocratic-or-anarchistic city-states joined by a common dialect. In a society where more voters want creationism than evolution taught to their children and where publicly funded education has been abandoned after serial arson, "Theory" is a major problem only insofar as it becomes a major distraction.

Laughing at nonsense, mourning dullness, protesting insularity, mocking arrogant sycophants, and resisting a bullying mob all remain worthwhile exercises. But the extent to which such pleasures are initiated by the Franco-American brand as opposed to pseudo-free-market one-party-system-backed economics, religious orthodoxies, identity allegiances which reinforce the injustices that shaped them, the Great Books gated community, pop evolutionary psychology, or tin Stalins, for example seems strictly a local matter. As proven by some publications of our beloved ALSC, "Theory" is not a necessary condition for worthless blather. And, as proven by some "Theorists", humans sometimes find it possible to take ethical action even against group pressure.

For that matter closest at hand, most of the Theory-happy Long Sunday kids provide full as much entertainment value as the Valve or Crooked Timber teams. (I'll forebear pointing out the snoozier exceptions, 'cause you never know how kids might grow up, but I gotta say Lacan is the crappiest thing to hit ethical intellectuals since things happened that were worse.)

For that matter closest to my heart, some of my favorite books of the 1970s and 1980s came from writers later to be classified as canonical Theorists. And if their books' quality declined inversely to number of disciples and citations, well, couldn't as little be said of Goethe? And if the ones who didn't decline simply disappeared (Alice Jardine, where art thou?), hasn't that happened to other dedicated academics?

Although this supposedly imperializing "Theory" seems to me too amorphous to be defined any way but situationally, Holbo seems as a civilian, I'm sure I oversimplify to define it as a self-contradictory mutually-supporting set of incoherent arguments from indefensible premises. Now, dumb arguments come from all over, and Holbo's battle isn't so much against the specific absurdities of Freud, Lacan, or Baudrillard as against "Theory", so let me focus on the eclecticism.

Hopsy Pike puts on a brave face
"And now let us smile, and be as we were."

Argument is essential to human discourse, and argument which follows the rules of logic and evidence has often proven valuable in the long run, if less often profitable in the short term. Anyway, I'm a tight-ass and so that's the kind of argument I prefer.

However, the multiply dimensional world of human experience supports more logically consistent systems than one. The contemporary sciences have not been (and will not be) collapsed into subparticle physics; even contemporary mathematics is not a family of clones. One can skeptically agree there's more in heaven and earth than's covered by a single philosophy while remaining skeptical of professional mediums. The strong-stomached scholar may well find traces of argument-by-pun even in the work of such buttoned-down types as Holbo and myself.

If art could be completely subsumed by any system, it would no longer be recognizable as art. Being experience, art can become evidence or counter-evidence for arguments, but never become exactly equivalent to an argument. Therefore it's entirely to be expected and welcomed that multiple ambitious ornate abstract argumentative structures will be brought to bear on artifacts, and even that some aesthetic structure-bearers might carry more than one. But I agree with Holbo that insofar as these arguments are meant to be useful for anything but careers, it seems fair to insist that each must work on its own provisional terms. After all, a bad novel can't be redeemed by a preface in which the author says he really would have preferred to write a hit song, or Ebony White by Will Eisner's historicist explanation.

Which, by the way, I still find valuable when contemplating Ebony White.

* * *

Actually. You know? Fuck it. That's not all going on, and that's not all why I wouldn't review this.

I've had to think again today about a couple of people who fell for the shuck and suffered for that, and had to think again today about a couple of people who didn't fall for it and suffered for that. The fact of the shuck is that you need family money behind you in this great culture of ours if you're going to devote yourself to Great Culture and survive. That's the main thing teachers should be teaching any unfortunates who still manage, despite the increasing number and height of the obstacles, to make it through to high art. Why the fuck is that not the fucking point of this book? And of the books it attacks?

And before you even say it, every communist I've ever met had family money behind them. Yeah, I know it was different in the Thirties. In the Thirties we had the New Deal, too, and the communists hated it.

And I'm glad, I really honest to god am, that the people I admire who have that family support going for them do have that much. But, as wise singers have sung, it's a thin line between love and fuck. And if y'all really care about the little people, how about just marrying one or something?

In conclusion, I'm sure Theory's Empire is a very good book and I think people who inherit empires will enjoy it.


Ray Davis appends:
Having absented myself, I shouldn't be so shocked that this event is calling forth the best string of entries and links of the Valve's young life. I was skeptical and I was wrong.

Besides proving that no one should listen to me, this may say something about the value of outreach. Now if we can only get that many people to write something about Jack Spicer!

As usual, IMproPRieTies conveys more and pithier than I could.

Jane Dark writes:

"And before you even say it, every communist I've ever met had family money behind them."

Well you should meet me then. Solidly middle-class via the American magic where a tautological 60% qualify, I was raised by a single grad student, and paid my own way through college, as well as every rent check since I was sixteen, etc. Not the displaced or disempowered, by a long shot. But not a penny of family money, and none coming. But the funny thing is, I work with lots of folks, communists, anarchists, half-breeds, who're from poor families. Maybe yr hanging out with a bad crowd?

The trouble is that I never found better ones. But it's certainly possible that I gave up too quickly I can't pretend to have made it a life's goal. I thank you for the correction.

2005-08-02: Afterthoughts

In the least coherent and most controversial paragraph above, I now see that I cut off a critical intervention path with "before you even say it." How was I supposed to be brought past mere lack of personal experience if I refused to hear evidence?

I also confused matters by using the word "survive" when I more meant "survive with reasonable dignity and security."

What set off my tantrum, as I all-too-vaguely indicated, were several reminders of well-heeled "Theorists", "Buddhists", "feminists", "scholars", "artists", or, yes, "socialists" and "Marxists" treating their more skilled and harder working but less financed colleagues like scum, and several reminders of teachers, scholars, and artists still scrambling for bare subsistence after years of service. And please note that I'm not referring to differences in labeling I see no shortage of career opportunities for sexists, bigots, free marketeers, and thumpers of more traditional bibles, and if I did, I wouldn't call that a crisis. If I'd happened instead to be talking to the many, many colleagues and students bullied by well-heeled "libertarians", "free-market enconomists", "Christians", "entrepreneurs", "traditional American valuers", and so on, while simultaneously immersed in those bullies' rhetoric, I would have spewed bile at a completely different set of straw-stuffed targets.

What's that got to do with "Theory"?


Or, as I've been trying to write a bit more temperately in this fiery Valve thread, the "Theory" debates seem unresolvable because the terms in which they're coached ignore what motivates them: abuses of institutional power.

And of those mostly repressed issues, the one most thoroughly repressed (in the academic humanities as in the art worlds) is the economic class one starts from. A student from a wealthy family will have a far softer career in the humanities than a student from the genteel academic middle class, who in turn will have a far softer career than a student from any other class. The only person I've recently seen bring up this aspect of education and research is the ever-fresh Little Professor, and she's stayed out of the "Theory" brawls entirely.

In this very essay I replicated the mistake I deplore by restricting my attempt at rational analysis to non-economic issues, and then dissolving into Donald Duck diction under the fold.

While I wrote the above, Josh Lukin was preparing a deservedly scathing response, mostly to that one goddamn paragraph. Some excerpts:

I didn't find the claim about the personal experience terribly credible --more on that anon. But it set me off because it is such a dishonest way to frame an assertion that it tends to be a tool used by all kinds of bad actors [...] So I was brooding on that, and yes, I thought, even if the personal experience thing is true, why doesn't Ray think of the people he knows of from others, including two of the Buffalo folks above, whom I've described to him, and then I thought, my God, contact via electronic media counts as meeting. Where's the HCDavis family swag, Ray?

The previous paragraph: I don't get "devote yourself" and "make it through to high art." You don't, in the context you're using, seem to mean *produce* "high art" but rather to appreciate and consume it, and make it central to your life. There are, of course, many walks of life in which you can do that. Teaching college is not the best of them; a friend recently said to me, "Trollope had it right: civil service." Producing it, or being credentialed to publicly analyze it in an institutionalized milieu, is another thing.

"And if y'all really care about the little people . . . " Oy, this will, if unchecked, grow into James Morrow's "I consider myself unequivocally a man of the left, but I join Robert Hughes in wondering why the postmodern academy directed its energies toward unmasking gender politics in Little Dorrit while Communism fell in Eastern Europe." You're slamming the political efficacy of college teachers when it was only last year that you discovered there was such a discipline as rhet/comp and have very probably not read enough to determine what its ambitions are? Okay. There are people (mostly in the UC system) who make shamefully exaggerated claims about the political efficacy of what they do as academicians. There are a few people who do what Horowitz accuses everybody of, raising consciousness in the classroom, running courses out of which Libertarians come having decided to be civil rights attorneys or environmental activists or what have you. There are people who feel that their theoretical pursuits are worthwhile and devote some energy to defending themselves against Maoist prudes who think that their work is meaningless unless accompanied by praxis. And there are . . . back in my Youngstown days, I heard a fine English professor say, "I'm very proud of our Professional Writing and Editing program. It teaches skills that will enable our students to work in strata of society that would otherwise be closed to them." This was also where a sensation-seeking journalist asked an African American student if she minded learning African history from an Irish-American scholar--the reporter was disappointed to hear, "I don't need to be taught how to be black: I just want to take advantage of the knowledge [the professor's] expertise lets her teach me." Recalling such remarks as these in my first years as a teaching assistant, I entered the composition classroom determined to respect the wishes of students who come to the composition classroom to learn concrete principles of writing that will enable them to function in areas where such skills are regarded as standards. That's not "care about the little people"?

Plus, every Marxist professor I can think of (and I have some knowledge of the field) is an activist. [...]

We were brought up to understand that activites we took for granted here were political acts in the Soviet Union . . . you see where I'm going with this. Things that it woulda been ridiculous to frame as "acts of resistance" thirty years ago . . .

Your rant there would be an important dose of reality if it were true. Since it's not, its serves as an exorcism. A futilitarian performative. Writing "SURRENDER DOROTHY" across the sky (okay, it's a small sky. But it's a public medium, so I'll stick to my metaphor).

You cut me off in conversation once when I was trying to talk about Michaels' power and the damage he was doing, but I think it's serious, and now that he's making an intervention into jurisprudential discourse, even more disturbing. Holstun advised me once that "It's more important, I think, to figure out how we can help stop the killing and exploitation than to engage in slapping contests with the likes of Berube," but Senator Clinton was influenced by _The Nation_ to oppose Estrada, so it's worth paying attention to what has the potential to give tools to or affect opinions among the powerful (look at how the discourse of the Red Scare years operated). As Michaels demonstrates in his books, one can use the _Against Theory_ sophisms ("If, as you say," I asked Chip, "Theory gives one persmission to be as smart as possible about certain things, what does _Against Theory_ give one permission to do?") to pull the rug out from under claims concerning social justice, and to discredit the developments that Chip praises in his "Velocities of Change" essay. Let me reiterate that what gets taught to college students, as Horowitz understands, has real-world consequences.

(I can't believe I just constructed a defensive argument to justify my being passionate about issues central to my field of endeavor. When I saw "Why the fuck is that not the fucking point . . . " I realized that they'd got you too, O'Brien, but I didn't realize that my time among the reprobate would make *me* so fragile that I'd concede the need to defend what I do --Oh, I know: it's the barrier constructed by "earnestly committed to political strategizing by people without any influence whatsoever" that got to me. Schlessinger? Mary McCarthy? Judge Bazelon? The young Decter, Himmelfarb, and Etzioni, if you wunna count the possibility of rehearsal (It wasn't so long ago that the "without any influence" accusation could have been made of Atrios, or Lenin)? What does "political" mean to you people? Or is it "influence" that I'm misreading?)

I'm probably taking that argument too far. Maybe my sense that the stakes are serious here, and my frustration with much of the _Theory's Empire_-type discussions, just means that I feel it would be very nice to regard certain issues as settled and certain points as self-evident and go on from there (there's a *lot* to be gone on to), ignoring how much gets "forgotten" or ignored [...] Maybe I'm just unsettled by the parallels to what's happening on the political landscape, where to our dismay we discovered a couple of years ago that ancient, conservative Robert Byrd was the only Senator who believed that Congress should have the powers granted it by the Constitution and who disagreed with Gonzales and Yoo on the President's powers. When someone says that Searle decisively k.o.'d Derrida, I hear "Reagan defeated a Communist dictatorship in Nicaragua and brought down the Soviet Union." I think Berube's dismissive remarks on Michaels are probably the most appropriate level of seriousness with which to take Michaels' claims, but, as I say, one can't possibly take Dershowitz's arguments vis-a-vis human rights, history, etc. seriously, yet there they are, getting on tv and influencing people and everything.

I cut off at the '30s because I think a) that was the last time the fantasy of violent class revolt in the USA had any possible grounding (and as I've said before, I'm glad the New Deal averted a revolution: revolutions have a poor track record), and b) Stalin got to be sort of a problem for the legitimacy of Communist Parties all round.

Josh is right to note the incoherence of "high art"'s place. Am I talking about study, production, or both? My resentment comes from both, but its expression is impossibly vague: poisonous smoke protecting the sanctity of a poisonous flame.

In "care about the little people", I wasn't addressing Josh or anyone else ever likely to read the message. It was one of those awful "This poem is for Lyndon Baines Johnson, you bastard" moments.

If it sounds like I'm trying to "bait Reds" or "bash profs", I'm part of the problem, because these received concepts of what battles we're fighting only serve the interests of those who have most of the power, want all of the power, and would love our pelts hung on the wall to keep out the damp. Obviously I agree that otherwise politically inept intellectuals can (sometimes) be (slightly) useful or damaging by providing argumentative tools. But even that can't happen if you've gated yourself into a separatist community. Clinton wouldn't read The Nation if it was a Theoretical-Leninist journal.

Anyway, none of that has anything to do with what I'd set out to express, and botched.

After my attempt at clearer thinking, Josh sent me a link with the (only slightly less scathing) note:

Oh, wait, the authors and targets of Theory's Empire didn't have to write it, it's been done already.

The link goes to Jerry Herron's review of Day Late, Dollar Short: The Next Generation and the New Academy, edited by Peter C. Herman. Herron finishes his review by quoting Michael Bérubé and summarizing:

And that's the trick, isn't it? Thinking of all of us who work here, as somehow being embarked on a common mission, as being citizens of the same work, which is teaching.

That's how everybody else sees us as teachers first, often teachers who seem not very interested in their jobs, or else not particularly well prepared to do them, the jobs that our fellow citizens think they are hiring us to do when they pay our salaries. If we could give ourselves a gift, that would surely be it, "to see oursels as others see us": professors, stars, grad students, part-timers, all of us. Citizens. Teachers. And once we see ourselves that way, then we ought to act as if we believed what we saw. Because it is true. Because it is the only thing, the right thing to do. And that is why this collection in many ways incomplete, short-sighted, and unsatisfactory is nevertheless a valuable book. We all ought to read it. Together. Not because it solves our problems, but because it makes clear both intentionally and not why solutions are so much of the time unthinkable.

. . .

Correlation methods of comparing idiolects in a transition area

(Grease for The Valve)
John L. Spicer: Correlation methods of comparing idiolects in a transition area

The cover of Jack Spicer's seventh book seems such a straightforward depiction of the poet's place in the academy.

I wish some other poets with day jobs had tried similar designs: a paregoric prescription by William Carlos Williams; a double indemnity policy by Wallace Stevens; a profits chart by Ron Silliman; a customs report by Geoffrey Chaucer....


Work! For the Night is Coming!
Coca Cola

. . .

Good Books from the English Department

Book reviewing don't come natural to me, but the call of politeness sometimes vanquishes nature's. In gratitude for John Latta's pointer, here are two other recent publications which deserve talking up.

  1. Hart Crane : After His Lights by Brian M. Reed

    Beneath his bright candy coating, Hart Crane can be a tough nut to crack. This is the best appreciation-analysis I've seen. If Reed occasionally repeats himself or overstates his case, well, that may be pedagogically necessary. When we limit the force of our expressions to reflect their validity, most readers and listeners miss the point entirely; for the object to be noticed, the mirror must magnify.

    Polemic and expository, Part One mimics the form and mocks the spirit of those "And here's how a feminist talks about Wordsworth" menangeries by showing how both the attractions and screw-ups of Crane's work and life refuse to fit any theoretical structure, academic trend by trend.

    Part Two spins a more idiosyncratic yarn, drawing Crane's lyric and then epic work from his "undertheorized" peculiarities. For instance, he may have been the first writer capable of appending a playlist to each publication. Sure, competitors like Pound, Eliot, and Zukofsky liked to compare their major undertakings to music. But by "music" they didn't mean "The Moon Shines on the Moonshine" at top volume on infinite repeat. (You can get a good taste of this part from "Hart Crane's Victrola" if you have access to Project MUSE or know someone who does.)

    Part Three moves into influence studies less profitably, partly because there's less profit to be had and partly because Reed wants to include lack of influence as a topic. (Non-influence studies could become a horrifically growing field.) Still, it gives him an excuse to get off some good ones about Frank O'Hara.

  2. Why We Read Fiction : Theory of Mind and the Novel by Lisa Zunshine

    As I've noted before, one reason to get older is so instead of dying sad about what we couldn't accomplish we can die happy about someone else accomplishing them. ("Then you can do the work for me," as the poet sang.) For almost as long as I've wanted to write a fantasy epic starring Jack Spicer, I've wanted to write a series of pieces called "Fiction Science" where tidbits from the cognitive sciences (social and developmental psychology as well as the neurosciences) would seed literary speculation. And here's an ex-Russian named Zunshine taking care of it!

    She doesn't include much science, but a little goes a long way with case studies.

    The little she takes are our human need and capacity to track attribution and reliability, and our mammalian impulse to play with our needs and capacities. Those are enough to explain much of the appeal of fiction, particularly written fiction.

    As a professionally literary reader, Zunshine tends to dwell on edge cases. S'OK; she acknowledges them as such, makes their edginess part of the point, and chooses contrasting edges: The first half of the volume looks at attribution games that many readers find too difficult to follow (the heroes of Clarissa and Lolita); the second half at attribution games that many readers find too artificial to care about (the detective mystery genre).

    It's a short book (with an even shorter version online). And despite its comically overblown title, she wrote it without the lookit-me handwaving of Franco Moretti's or Nancy Armstrong's recent loud-and-skinnies in fact, she writes as well as a good blogger.

    By which I don't mean me. Making complicated things seem simple's not a skill I possess, just a skill I respect.


Simultan kindly forwarded from the TLS a brief demonstration that chatty application of a few easily digested ideas to some engaging particulars will not satisfy a seeker of rigorously theoretical manifestos. Fair enough. For myself, I hope there's room in criticism for both, and more.

(I don't suppose the TLS much less the NYRB or the NYTBR will take any notice of the Hart Crane book, since it's neither a biography nor a lament that nobody reads poetry any more.)

Josh Lukin inquires:

Ian Matthews was a poet?

Inspired by what inspires poets, anyway. "Silver moon sail up and silver moonshine..."

Paul Kerschen breaks the curse of silence:

Just wanted to thank the good people at for the heads-up on the Hart Crane book; I requisitioned it from the library this past week and found it a real treat to read, especially the middle section. I admit that I zipped pretty quickly through the final influence-studies part, but the back-and-forth from scansion and syntax to the poetics of the Victrola was a real bravura performance. Among other things, it made me feel rather better about the possibility of writing that kind of book for a living. (And if Swinburne's never gonna be one of my favorite poets, I'm still glad to see that not everyone followed up on Eliot's excommunication of him.)

In Philosophy and Literature 30.2 (2006), Brian Boyd has published a much better dissing of Zunshine than the TLS managed. Regarding my own more positive response, I can only point to the influence of low expectations. (Maybe another reason I mentioned "good bloggers"?)

. . .

Soul on Ice

Josh Lukin told me someone at the MLA said prison writings are to contemporary America as slave narratives were to nineteenth-century America. I expressed skepticism. I mean, I wish it were true our two most distinctive national barbarities have enough in common but I don't believe the punitive system's raised anything close to abolitionist fervor yet. Unincarcerated people such as lit department academics will protest individual cases of injustice, but when it comes to extended indignation they prefer other issues.

But then I read this:

How things are with us asks about the state of our soul. We may not want to respond to such a question. We may doubt we have a life with enough radiance or enough despair to collect what senses are left to 'soul.' My reply: our soul is left in our sentences, if we can find ourselves there.
- Brett Bourbon, Finding a Replacement for the Soul:
Mind and Meaning in Literature and Philosophy
, 2004


Here is my soul. It's right here, in this sentence.

Jack Spicer, dead linguist, knows the feeling.

Josh Lukin wants more nuance in the set-ups:

What HBF said was (something like) that to study the contemporary U.S. while ignoring the institution, culture, and literature of incarceration was like studying the 19th-century U.S. and ignoring slavery. That statement protests against the current blindspots in our consciousness rather than making a claim that one would wish were true. He did speak of prison literature from Jack London on, noting that in their review of the 2,000-page 2006 Heath Anthology of American Literature, the NYT devoted a chunk of space to denouncing the fact that it contained 27 pages of prison lit.

I'd note that HBF and a few other people in the radical caucus (Bill Mullen comes to mind) are among the few academics in lit departments who do take issue with and publicly (to the extent that they have "public access") oppose/decry the carceral system as a whole, teaching prison literature *and* teaching prisoners all the time. Probably there are a few more such radicals in Horowitz's book. Manning Marable is very good on the issue as well, but is, I think, not a lit person.

I understand, but we differ as where the nuance should go. Ignoring contemporary incarceration is not like ignoring eighteenth- and nineteenth-century slavery insofar as that ignorance holds in the vast majority of literature classrooms (and the NYTBR, for that matter). The comparison's considerable rhetorical force comes from how it doesn't apply.

(More here.)

Kip Manley intuits correctly that my stupid joke was also triggered by the EXTRATERRITORIAL EXECUTION OF THE YEAR!. "So, y'know, I figure 'My country, right or wrong' will count as a preemptive plea bargain when the war crime trials start. Is that just me or what!?" [SILENCE] "Well, I wanna tell ya...."

LATER: Partly prompted by my rude burlesque, Josh has posted a fine summary of what sounds like a fine panel. See, rude burlesque can achieve great things! Indirectly.

. . .

Nothing Personal, 5

What does it mean to talk about a poet's "voice"? Or to praise a poet's contribution or opposition to "diction"? Something about a poem in a particular context, context and poem held as a unit.... It's an intuition of vocabulary and aim, stops and breaks, approach and territory. It's what good parody flushes out of its home digs and into the open.

Whatever it is, what I wrote earlier didn't quite get it. Personality per se isn't the issue and depersonalization isn't the goal "depersonalizing"'s just another formula for sounding like a poet. Personality is undiscardable: it's not in our hands to discard, being a matter of how a subject is perceived. Posing or not, once the camera snaps, I'm captured in a pose. With all the will in the world, ideas seep into our things.

No, Marcel Duchamp wasn't trying to escape marcelduchampitude. What he disliked was not himself, but a certain rhetoric of self-presentation which leads to a certain social relation....

For example, to comments which read like a pro-anorexia support group's. Honestly pursued self-indulgence is a rare thing; what usually goes under that name is a desperate fraud of self- and peer-flattery. Jack Spicer's and Frank O'Hara's flatness "I am a real poet" opens up that window lets the bad air out.

Not that window openers necessarily benefit directly. Unhealthy as their verses sound to me, Duncan, Ginsberg, Berryman, and Lowell all outlived O'Hara and Spicer. A fresh expression of acerbic alcoholism is nicer than a stale one, but that doesn't make it safe to operate heavy machinery: you're still alone in a room with a hangover. The mostly-sober Objectivists were unusual in being able to take the matter of the contemporary lyric past how someone fucked you over, how you fucked someone else over, or how fucked up you are.

Which may in itself be enough to justify associating them with Language Poetry.


Sense of Doubt?
As much as their left-wing earnestness and their formal choices *what*?

I see what you mean. Would I could return the favor. I hope trimming the sentence helped a bit letting it grow didn't seem to.

Speaking of compression artifacts, I got an email this morning titled "GMT Book" and starting "Dear GMT Event Contributors," and I must've spent two minutes trying to remember when the hell we ever discussed time zones on the Valve.

. . .

What I tried to say to Michael

I don't think Jack Spicer was "hermetic" in the usual sense: there are lots of quotes and misquotes from the canon and nursery rhymes and folk songs, but knowing where they came from doesn't explain them, it's more the opposite: they show up because they're catchy tunes and they're winnowed till all that's left is catchiness.

But it's true, there is a kind of sealed-off quality to his writing, and I can understand how someone might want to open the window after a while. Most blatantly, Spicer waves the word "poetry" around a lot more than I can usually stomach. It's not like he's a snob: we get baseball games and walks by the ocean and JFK's assassination and sick horniness. But every whiff of fresh air gets processed and reprocessed into the same characteristic funk.

The thing is, though. A lot of writers, maybe most writers, not just poets, sometimes sense a material force, intuit some structure that pre-dates us, which can derail or at least side-track us towards some destination that seems to be waiting there with its own integrity, with almost its own rights. Last week, for example, I read this from Rae Armantrout:

Who are we talking to when we write? I don't really think, in my case, that I'm talking to a specific audience; I think I'm talking to myself, but when I'm talking to myself, who am I talking to? It feels very much like when I was a child and I prayed, so it's not that I actually believe there is an entity called God who hears what I say, but there is this desire to somehow perfect utterance. But make it perfect for whom, you know? I think in a way we are making something for the gods that we don't believe in.

I don't mean sabotage, although it can turn out that way, more of a grip-hold on artifactuality. Most writers treat the intuition in a practical way, as incitement, to distract us from self-consciousness, or as an uninspected justification of last resort.

If you start behaving as if there really was some unsurfaced connection between verbal structure and worldly business, you get what's called "magic." You get poets like W. B. Yeats and Robert Duncan. But their magic is a self-inflating and semi-deniable fantasy, dressing up and feeling slick, a boost to get the job done. Maybe more sexual aid than sex toy, but still basically utilitarian.

What would it be like to honestly follow through on our when-it's-convenient lip-service? To drop the playacting, and take "this horseshit, this uncomfortable music," seriously and take the intellectual, spiritual, and practical consequences?

That wouldn't be fancy-dress Magick but the daily, nightly, and eternal grind of religious duty, of a particularly dour sort, a dutiful homespun Protestant...

Very Protestant...

He was an atheist.

Nah, not really. He deploys the word "God" almost as often as the word "poetry," more often than any other twentieth century English-speaking poet I know. But not a "personal God." Gods don't manifest just so you can drop God's name and get waved into the club. If God's there, God's there, and you take God on that basis, and from your base. Spicer doesn't lose himself in religion, we're all grown-ups here. The Poet is a beat-up receiver of God's Martian radio signal (or an aching catcher of baseball God), fully responsible for any transduction and traducement (or pick-off attempt and error), and that's where the personal begins and ends and bends: as the characteristic funk of modulation. A radio tuner works within its range, a radio speaker works within its range, and Spicer's exploratory theology works within the voice of a resentful impoverished well-educated alcoholic gay mid-century American. No escape from our home in the range.

And when our voice is given over to the music, what does the music have to tell us? Get lost.

Nothing by this music.
Is a frigate bird or a rock or some seaweed.
Hail nothing
The infernal
Is a slippering wetness out at the horizon.
Hell is this:
The lack of anything but the eternal to look at
The expansiveness of salt
The lack of any bed but one's
Music to sleep in.

If Spicer's the only writer who can make me swallow a punch-line like "Poet, // Be like God," it's because first he defined his terms: God sees everything that we have lost or forgotten. God is a cannibal that only eats itself. God is gone.

And that little door with all those wheels in it
leave in it
Like God.

And I suppose you could say the experiment's results were negative. There was no (commercially viable) Northwest Passage. The patient died. But for those stuck in these experimental conditions, the operation itself was a triumphant success, something to celebrate and dwell on. The experiment had been waiting to be made, and now none of us have to make it.

. . .

Graphemics 2020

While socially distancing in our backyard this morning and praising the goodness of Graham Mackintosh, I fetched my treasured copy of Language to show it off and opened it at random to "(The children don't even wear masks)".


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.