. . . Reznikoff

. . .

Mary Oppen: Charles [Reznikoff] worked at the American Law Book Company down on the Brooklyn side of Manhattan Bridge and after work in the evening sometimes we would meet Charles and walk with him across Manhattan Bridge the full length of Manhattan, stopping at his favorite restaurants. Here to have blueberry muffins, another place to have some other specialty that he knew about. And so we reached his home up in the Bronx; it was a long walk. Charles did this every morning to get to work and every evening to get home, and when he didn't walk with us he wrote as he went along. This was how he had time to himself....

He was a very hard man to praise. Going for walks with Charles and talking -- if one ever approached, even obliquely, saying something that might possibly turn out to be favorable, Charles would immediately begin some anecdote, usually to do with his father's millinery business....

George Oppen: ... The last time I tried to praise Charles, he at once interrupted to say, "George, I'm sure we both do the best we can."

... The meaning of Charles' poetry to me is a small man walking about a city, his eyes and his ears alive in the city, who sees everything and this is the politics. The rest, the lesson for young poets, is a very simple one. It need only be perfect.

KPFA interview by Charles Amirkhanian, 1974
printed in Sagetrieb, Winter 1984

. . .

As one Somnambulist to another
our sleep could be more perfect.

Jan.-Feb. 1935
    To give heat is within the control of every human being.
Lorine Niedecker means a lot to me. All the Objectivists mean something to me, 'cause of their class, and their politics, and the long breaks they took to make a living or a political commitment -- well, I guess maybe those aren't uncorrelated -- and their simultaneous (if often interrupted) commitment to poetic artifact as artifact instead of as ego-puffing walrus-teared persona. (Which may also be not so uncorrelated.)

And I still gnaw and lipsmack and tonguecluck Zukofsky's confections with delight, but Niedecker's my infatuation. I whine about how hard it is with a full-time job, or without one, and folks ask how someone who's not a grad student could possibly maintain an intellectual life, and then I think about Niedecker and I can't decide whether to crumble or melt or be pleased to be human, though I'm grateful that Niedecker prods us toward option 3.

It's been a long wait for the collected Lorine Niedecker. It's still not completely collected, like for instance her reviews (though it includes "I'd sit on a quiet fence / and sing a quiet thing: sincere, sincere. / And that would be Reznikoff."), and her letters you should get too, and I agree with Bob Arnold it's a lousy shame the book designer decided to wedge short poems into the bottom of the page and then split them into splintery messes with a swing of her mighty axe, I guess she might have been trying to save paper but this was the writer of "My friend tree / I sawed you down" so you have to wonder....

But it's better than before, being so much more than before. All the previously-unpublished work seems lovely to me, like this two-weeks-and-one-trite-affirmation per page 1935 calendar someone gave her, all twenty-seven pages of which she pasted over with her own affirmations. (Under this particular paste-job I can make out "...people in...neighborhood...better place...they...")

Later affirmations aimed at an even later date:

I fear this war
Will be long and painful
and who
  No matter where you are
you are alone
and in danger — well
            to hell
with it.

. . .

No Better than We Should Be, 4

Poetic Obligation: Ethics in Experimental American Poetry after 1945 by G. Matthew Jenkins

Jenkins has successfully brooded that rara avis, a serious university-published critical study of interesting late-twentieth-century poets: George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Edward Dorn, Robert Duncan, Susan Howe, and Lyn Hejinian. The book conveys enthusiasm without hysteria, and Jenkins's interpretations are marred only (and maybe unavoidably) by a blanket stodginess which sometimes muffles the untoward goings-on beneath.

Again, however, I resolutely turn from the hard-won virtues of a recommended book and towards my bad temper. When summing up, Jenkins asks:

Can this experience of alterity, to which we are obligated to respond in the poem, transfer to our daily lives outside of poetic activity? That question is, of course, impossible to answer definitively because it would require us to assert a Logos once again and to therefore assume we know the Other. However, it is not unfair to conclude that if one becomes accustom [sic] to encountering alterity in the reading/writing of a poem, then one would be less likely to respond to alterity in other contexts with the same disdain for, distrust of, and discrimination against the Other that has marked the history of Western thought and civilization.

Granting the premise (and ignoring that collapse of "reading/writing"), the conclusion may be in some sense fair. But if we've truly learned a healthy distrust of subjectivity, we must seek external validation of Jenkins's intuition, and we will fail to find any. Reactions to particular artifacts vary wildly by age, by background, by individual. Attempts to measure their effects drastically alter those effects. It's true that in one unusually clear study, playing Bob Sinclair's "Love Generation" in the background led to more charitable donations than playing Bob Sinclair's "Rock This Party" in the background. But compare Sinclair's lyrics to those of Jenkins's (and my) preferred poets:

Why must the children play in the streets?
Broken hearts and faded dreams, ease up to everyone that you meet
Don't you worry, it could be so sweet
Just look to the rainbow, you will see
The sun will shine till eternity
I've got so much love in my heart
No one can tear it apart

Feel the love generation
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Feel the love generation
C'mon, c'mon, c'mon, c'mon, yeah

Does a 33% possibility that this will sway me to donate two dollars to some non-profit organization make it a good song? Or to put it in active that is, ethical terms does it make me choose to hear it? What's the likelihood that listening to it ninety-nine more times will trigger a donation of two hundred dollars? What excuse can I offer for instead choosing to hear Iggy and the Stooges' "Cock in My Pocket"? This does not demonstrate the efficacy of contemporary experimental poetry; it confirms the efficacy of propaganda, advertising, and Muzak.

Myself, I'm an unusually bookish person, and so novels have perhaps two or three times triggered or reinforced changes in my behavior, or at least my intentions and interpretations. Which, while impressive in the abstract, compares poorly to the shapings wrought by ridicule, praise, welcome, rejection, an empty belly, a dizzy head, firings, promotions, desertions, caresses, illnesses, and deaths. Drastic changes in my poetic taste have followed drastic changes in my practical ethics notably, my stomach-turn against confessional formalism but never, to my knowledge, the other way round.

Having argued against Jenkins's conclusion, I must now argue against his premise. It seems doubtful that any human beings, "Western" or not, actually would accustom themselves to alterity by reading or writing contemporary experimental poems. What would drive them to do so? A choir can be heard only by the congregation who's gathered. Even an "adventurous" reader like myself won't continue to plug away at a thoroughly unrewarding volume. It's too easy to close and put down.

Unless, of course, I'm going to be judged on my reading in a classroom, for example.

In such a pedagogical context, Jenkins's approach is valuable, and familiar: students will naturally wonder what the hell these people think they're doing and why anyone should care, and the instructor will naturally ascribe sensible and compelling motives to these people, replacing irritable bewilderment with lecture-by-proxy, the unyielding painting with an accessible wall-text.

But now any encounter with alterity takes place at a twice-over remove: like all reading, it occurs between a reading subject and a textual object rather than between human equals; that reading in turn occurs within a formal social context imposed by authority. And all available evidence tells us that the ethical effects of a flesh-and-blood-and-dollars interaction will easily swamp the minute and highly variable effects of assigned reading.

Given the familiarity of Jenkins's methods, motives, and probable surroundings, what then calls for the use of Levinian vocabulary? The special needs of this particular material? Apparently not:

... each one of these poets has led an "ethical" life, being for others and making the world a better place with their actions and words. But that does not mean that they intentionally "craft" an ethics through their poetic art. Yes, all of the poets I include in this study deal with ethical issues thematically, but that is true of almost all poetry dating back to Homer. But these poets write in such a way that the demand of the Other obliges them and us through language. Since their poetry does not depend on the poets' intentions or on history or politics or action, then one could argue that this ethics can be found in any type of poetry or in any manifestation of language. And that would be true.

And I would agree. Which is why, when Jenkins begins his final chapter:

"As W. H. Auden famously quipped, poetry makes nothing happen..."

he behaves unethically. An elegy written for Yeats and in 1939 was no place for quips. Auden's statement meant not that poetry doesn't act, but that poetry specifically acts to make nothing happen. "It survives in the valley of its making," far from the motivating-somethings busily thrown and stacked up and knocked to the ground by executives and politicians and army corps; "it survives, a way of happening, a mouth."

Oppen's reputation as an ethically motivated poet derived from his blatant choice to leave the poetic context for several decades. When dedicated to Communism, Oppen naturally (like any human being) also attempted to behave ethically to family, strangers, enemies, and comrades, continuously negotiating those not-always-beautifully-coinciding demands. And his return to a poetic context was an equally blatant choice, at least partly justified by the knowledge that people tend to lead less frustrating lives when they do what they feel impelled to do. It didn't eradicate the border between political service and lip service.


Copy Editor Bear wants to know if the outfit responsible for "one becomes accustom" also got Lyn Hejinian's name wrong... he's a pest, that bear. On the Stooges: surely they recorded that song because they weren't supposed to, and surely you aren't supposed to listen to it, and it all goes to show that if alterity matters, autonomy matters even more. Which is one sad thing about classrooms.

No, a different outfit was responsible for adding an "n" to "Lyn" (and not for the first time, neither). Thank you, Copy Editor Bear!


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.