Monday, April 26, 2010

How not to write while incredulous


In the crypt of poetry, the niche occupied by the language of the Arkansas man of letters John Gould Fletcher (1886-1950) is tiny and hidden, even though it happens to be permanent. From now to the end of history, Fletcher will always have been the only writer who was both one of the original Imagists and then one of the original Southern Agrarians, but in each of the two coterie conflicts that defined his reputation he enlisted on the losing side. When the Imagist movement fractured, he remained loyal to Amy Lowell, not Ezra Pound, and when the Agrarians' time was up he chose southern obscurity with his friend Donald Davidson over northern and national fame with his friend Allen Tate. Today, the Fletcher pages in Bob Blaisdell's anthology Imagist Poetry look no worse than the others, but there's little reason to read them.

However, for a moment in 1933, history took notice of Fletcher's language when it accidentally dropped into a larger context.

On December 27, 1933, The Nation published a letter in which Fletcher asked northern liberal readers to consider the trial of the Scottsboro Boys in the context of white southern culture. The Scottsboro Boys were nine African Americans, aged 13 to 21, who on March 25, 1931, had been arrested on board a freight train in Scottsboro, Alabama, in the company of two white women. Their trials for rape were to drag out from 1931 to 1937, and from the beginning Fletcher was convinced that they might well have been innocent. But his letter to The Nation asked readers to think about a larger issue than that mere courtroom technicality. At stake in this trial, Fletcher explained, was not a handful of black lives but the concept of white southern culture itself -- a concept made out of stern, tragic grandeur.

We in the South do not legislate against the Negro as a class. Whether he is a rich man or a poor field laborer, his status is the same. Unlike Massachusetts, which did Sacco and Vanzetti to death not because they were guilty (they were not) but because they had agitated for better conditions of life among the industrial proletariat, we do no Negro to death because of his political affiliations. But we are determined, whether rightly or wrongly, to treat him as a race largely dependent upon us, and inferior to ours. Unquestionably certain Negro intellectuals, such as James Weldon Johnson, suffer from such discrimination. For them, we have of recent years encouraged the building of great schools and universities. We believe that under our system the great majority of the race are leading happy and contented lives. But our system, we admit, has one defect. If a white woman is prepared to swear that a Negro either raped or attempted to rape her, we see to it that the Negro is executed. (734)

After all, Fletcher concluded: ". . . justice is in itself an abstract matter, and as every great lawyer knows, has always to yield to the morals, the usages, the customs and conveniences of a living and functioning community" (735).

The editors of The Nation were dumbfounded. Of course Fletcher was saying nothing that he and his Agrarian colleagues hadn't said three years earlier in their manifesto, I'll Take My Stand. Of course, too, I'll Take My Stand had little to add to the still older ideas of such English conservatives as T. S. Eliot and G. K. Chesterton. But the sheer airy abstraction of Fletcher's formulation still struck the editors as incredible. Starchily, the editors protested in the third person: "They take the most rigorous exception to the conduct of the Scottsboro case in Alabama, not because they are primarily interested in class justice or injustice, but because it is an example of egregious particular injustice" (735). Their shock took verbal form in the headline of the correspondence column: "Is This the Voice of the South?" On January 17, 1934, they published and summarized a further body of correspondence in reply.

This, however, offered only an equivocal answer to their question. Wrote John W. Wilson of Leesburg, Florida: "In regard to lynching I very strongly feel that mob violence must be most heartily condemned. . . . As to the justice meted out by Southerners to the Negroes as a race and individually, I believe on the whole it is very good. Perhaps in a few thousand years we of the South, both white and Negro, will have reached a higher plane of civilization, and a different or better justice may be possible" (75). As of January 17, 1934, The Nation's museum of contemporary language had only vagueness to show. Bravely, however, the editors asked one more question on December 27: "Justice to Germany?"

The answer to that was not vague at all. The six letters published below the head were in complete agreement. No, said the letters; justice was not being done to Germany, because The Nation was bullying the Hitler regime. As David Lukens Price of Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, put it:

. . . I am not quarreling with the side [The Nation] takes, but if it is prompted by a sense of fair play and justice for all, should it not present information about the Hitler Bewegung that, if not favorable, is at least unbiased? Its insinuations that the new leaders are men without conscience -- in short, cruel, inhumane, selfish, and even immoral, lacking one redeeming characteristic -- I resent. (736)


Subject to uncontrollable rages and incapacitating depressions, John Gould Fletcher was in and out of mental hospitals all his adult life, and his death was a suicide. About David Lukens Price I know nothing, but another letter in The Nation's six-letter Briefwechsel was signed by a locally well regarded Indianapolis attorney, Herman W. Kothe, and a third was signed by a Harvard graduate student, Hillis Kaiser. Some historical circumstances permit retrospective explanations, but others don't. Perhaps all we can do is look at the words of those cases wordlessly, as if they were pictures. Here, have a JPEG. Click twice to enlarge. See John Gould Fletcher briefly appear before your eyes, then vanish again on the third page.


On September 11, 2001, something strange happened to English: the Language poet Charles Bernstein was rendered coherent by an attack of incredulity. The short suite he published about the catastrophic event bravely carries on the Language game with its title, "Some of These Daze," but after that its whole ludic architecture retracts itself into a newly secreted shell of reinforced, pre-deconstructed freshman comp.

The section called "Report from Liberty Street," for instance, is in prose with a prose title, and almost its only attempt at verse consists of a one-sentence paragraph printed in heavy-handed bold italic and repeated like a refrain: "They thought they were going to heaven." Just before the end comes one more attempt: a cliché quote, almost jokily stale in its context: "The lone and level sands stretch far away." (They were Arabs, get it?)

But then, at the very end, comes a parenthetical datum, perhaps the saddest line of all in this pathetically inadequate artifact: "(September 18 - October 1, 2001)." It's as if the poet had given up on his art; as if he believed, in extremis, that Adorno was right -- not just right for his moment in history but right forever -- about the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz; as if he believed that when the rubble gets real, the grammar and syntax had better get back to freshman orientation and a tutorial in the idea of wie es eigentlich gewesen.

But after all, when we're confronted by words we can't bring ourselves to believe and, after that, wordlessnesses we can't bring ourselves to believe, what is left except, in words we know no longer mean, to cry, "They (we, I) take the most rigorous exception"?



Bernstein, Charles. "Some of These Daze." Girly Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006) 17-33.

Blaisdell, Bob, ed. Imagist Poetry: An Anthology. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1999.

I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. By Twelve Southerners. New York: Harper, 1930.

Johnson, Ben F., III. Fierce Solitude: A Life of John Gould Fletcher. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994.

"Scottsboro Case." The Reader's Companion to American History, ed. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

"It must B": simile, rebus, and power


The cat was lying on the ground, watching another cat.

 Click to enlarge.

I looked at his legs and a simile occurred to me: "He looks like . . ." So I did some photoshopping in two stages,

and then I had something for the Jahrzeit of Edward Gorey (d. April 15, 2000), painter of cats and the ballet.


Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz of Los Angeles's Chai Center has (or had two years ago, when this article was published)

an interesting trait: after meeting an attractive woman, he changes from a human being to a Language poet. Once the woman has passed out of his field of vision, he begins translating his memory of her into words and composing what the article calls "rambling e-mails in large print, heavy with text-message shorthand punctuated with varied text colors, point sizes and fonts."

To one woman, for instance, he sent a poem which included this text.
What were U thinking when U brought a GOY 2 our Seder??? How did U dare 2 do such a reprehensible thing? It must B tht U R quite mentally unbalanced & not taking yr meds. And then U had the Chutzpa 2 try 2 pick up another Jew from our group while U were sitting there W/ a GOY (who was even of a dfrnt RACE ... )?
I call the text a poem for the simplest possible formal reason: because it is about language as such. Consider the poem's phrase "It must B," for example. Spelling out the lower-case word "be" would have cost Rabbi Schwartz no more keystrokes than the upper-case rebus "B," but the rebus's encrypted readability enforces a power relationship which the unambiguous full word can't. To be understood, "B" has to be read twice: first as a failed objective reading, then as a translation which requires its reader to submit to the letter's singularity ("In my language, 'B' means what I say it means.") That, of course, is the rebus's purpose. Like Harold Bloom's Milton or Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty, Rabbi Schwartz has fashioned language into a projection of his power as a strong poet.


But the cat was lying under this flower, which I had photographed this way a moment earlier.

It would be easy for a weak poet to make the flower too into a balletic simile. There once existed a whole manual of procedure for that translation: the Victorian technology called the language of flowers. But to be a strong poet would be to keep the dictionary closed and remain self-imprisoned in the wordless grammar of the plant as such -- self-imprisoned until the completing instant of metamorphosis. And in what language then would the flower deign to speak to us?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Asunder: "It is, before all, to make you see"

To mark the 35th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the front page of the April 4, 2010, New York Times Book Review came into our homes speaking of two novels about the Vietnam War. One of these, Karl Marlantes's Matterhorn, was a first book which (according to the reviewer, Sebastian Junger) took 30 years to write. "Reading his account of the bloody folly surrounding the Matterhorn outpost," breathes the awed Junger, "you get the feeling Marlantes is not overly worried about the attention span of his readers; you get the feeling he was not desperate or impatient to be published."

But then Junger quotes a sample of Marlantes's prose. It goes like this.

No, the jungle wasn't evil. It was indifferent. So, too, was the world. Evil, then, must be the negation of something man had added to the world. Ultimately, it was caring about something that made the world liable to evil. Caring. And then the caring gets torn asunder. Everybody dies, but not everybody cares.

Well, as Samuel Johnson said about the Metaphysical poets, "To write on their plan it was at least necessary to read and think." To write this passage, Merlantes seems to have read Conrad (Heart of Darkness), Emerson (the Divinity School Address -- "Evil is merely privative. It is like cold, which is the privation of heat"), and Hemingway (passim).

But "asunder"?

In prose that attempted an act of representation all the way down to the heart of language, the washerwomen on the Liffey once listened and sighed and wondered:

Waterhouse's clogh. They took it asunder, I hurd thum sigh. When will they reassemble it? (213)

"Asunder" is a word signifying separation in a definitive way. It is to "apart," say, as adieu is to au revoir. Whispering such significances through intervals between the words in its lexicon, Finnegans Wake would seem to be an instructive textbook in the language of loss of meaning, negation, and the subsumption of the human into wordless time. But Finnegans Wake doesn't seem to be part of the library underlying Matterhorn. If Marlantes and Junger and the New York Times Book Review had a theory of language in mind when they wrote their words down and showed them to us, it was probably not much more ambitious than the serviceable goal that Joseph Conrad had in mind in 1897 when he wrote his preface to The Nigger of the "Narcissus":

My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel -- it is, before all, to make you see. That -- and no more, and it is everything.

But on the day in 1975 when the helicopters took off from the rooftops of Saigon, could it still be everything? In its formal capacity of an agent of the power of the written word, the New York Times Book Review doesn't seem to believe that itself.

Click to enlarge.

Even the compositor's math will convince you of that. Of the four columns on this page, prose occupies the one on the left and the one on the right, but the two in the center are all a wordless image by an artist whose wordy name is reduced to a fine-print legality in the corner, Patrick Thomas. On the page, the wordless image is the only thing close to a work of art -- that is, a piece of representation capable of lifting us off the page. Remembering as we rise free of the undistinguished prose on its margins, we look back at the picture and see silhouettes of Blackhawk helicopters and F-4 bombers, of peace signs and a map of Vietnam. The color scheme is camouflage, and that helps us set the silhouettes to words of our own -- moralizing words, nostalgia words circa 2010.

But two more of the silhouettes are redacted versions of images that evoked words in their own time: Eddie Adams's 1968 photograph of South Vietnamese national police chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan blowing a handcuffed prisoner's brains out and Nick Ut's 1972 photograph of a scattering crowd of screaming children fleeing before a napalm attack. America saw those images shortly after their artists interacted with history to bring them forth, and after that it was harder to read Heart of Darkness as simply as Conrad had written it -- and harder too, of course, to think about war as it had been thought about in Conrad's time. Something in the relation between a writer and his readers had been sundered. Thanks to photographic technology, some of the artist's responsibility for making us see had passed from the written word to an instrumentality of less mediated sight.

So it may be that Matterhorn will ultimately have less to say about the Vietnam War than Finnegans Wake. Situated on a borderline between direct seeing and direct speech, whispering to us in dream language of an experience that its words can never completely make us see, Finnegans Wake may be readable as an episode in the representation of the extreme. And in the way it places words before us as simply there, irreducible to any morality except its own grammar, it begins to seem, in certain lights, like a photograph.