Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Blackbird 10

From Blackbird 10: L- Art/photocopy by Mike Dyar; R- Poem/lettering/drawing by Ivan Glišić
Blackbird is an occasional journal of poetry and mail art, edited and published by David Stone, poet and director of the Blackbird Institute. The new issue 10 (2009-2012) is just out featuring contributions from poets Eric Basso, B. Z. Niditch, Arnold Skemer, Richard Kostelanetz, Laura Ryder (with photography), Stone, and many others including myself.

There is a manifesto on mail art by Ryosuke Cohen and visual work, realistically reproduced in the preferred photocopy format, by David Chirot, Elaine Rounds, Dennis Saleh, Lavona Sherarts, Guido Vermuelen (two in double-sized fold-out format), Peter Whitson Warren, Wolfgang Guenther (with poems), and too many more to list. Not surprisingly, the blackbird/crow/raven theme proliferates here.

I find mail art to be an interesting genre — it is an egalitarian genre in that its materials are easy to obtain and the finished work is inexpensive to reproduce.  Essentially a form of collage often combined with drawing, painting, photography, ink-stamp, text, it is photocopied and sent all over the world, each piece then likely recopied and sent on again.

There is a global underground mail-art network, which still mostly uses the old-fashioned postal method of delivery, according to Cohen’s manifesto. Indeed, the contributors to Blackbird 10 are quite an international group.  Copies can be obtained from David Stone at the Blackbird Institute, P.O. Box 16235, Baltimore, MD, 21210, USA.

Copies are $25 each, plus shipping, and Stone notes, “$5 s/h for U.S., $12.00 international. International payment is a problem for me. I cannot take credit cards or foreign currency. Payment must be in U.S. dollars.” Still, well worth having.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Gertrude Stein and the Jacket2 dossier

Recently, Jacket2 posted a dossier, edited by Charles Bernstein, called “Gertrude Stein’s War Years: Setting the Record Straight.”  In compiling a number of different essays, articles, and editorial pieces, it seeks to refute the recent charges made by a number of commentators that Stein was a Nazi sympathizer or a fascist.  Prompted in part by the recent Stein show at the Met, these critics most particularly point to her close association with Bernard Faÿ, director of the Bibliothèque Nationale under the Vichy regime.  Some also make the rather more spurious claims that Stein supported Hitler for the Nobel Peace Prize and that she was photographed giving the Nazi salute. Berstein, in his essay, rightly exposes these latter assertions as false.  The Nobel Peace Prize comment is obviously ironic when read in context, and the Life magazine photo in question, which Bernstein reproduces, clearly shows Stein and a group of American soldiers at Berchtesgaden pointing, with index fingers outstretched, off into the distance (not giving the Nazi salute). For anyone to attack Stein on the grounds of these falsehoods is to make quite a weak case indeed.

I wonder where Jacket2 really wants to go with all this, however.  It seems to me that in defending Stein from the accusation of Nazi sympathies, they expose and affirm some less-egregious but still-questionable aspects of Stein’s politics and choices during the war. I’m not so sure that the dossier — which also includes a paper delivered by Edward Burns at the Met and Joan Retallack’s introduction to Gertrude Stein: Selections (University of California Press, 2008) — successfully disproves Stein’s admiration for Marshal Pétain or the taint of her relationship with Faÿ.

Barbara Will (listed in the dossier as someone who “denounce[s] Stein for her war time record”), whose book Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma (Columbia University Press, 2011) is one of the prime sources of information on Stein’s wartime years, is among those who discuss Stein’s project of translating Pétain’s speeches for an American audience, facilitated by Faÿ. In Stein’s introduction to the speeches, she compares Pétain to George Washington (without irony). In an essay for Humanities (the journal of the NEH), Will writes,

we have no evidence to suggest that Gertrude Stein was anything but an enthusiastic supporter of the Vichy regime. In her correspondence during this period, Stein explicitly refers to herself as a “propagandist” for the “new France.”  She was apparently excited by the possibility that Pétain himself had approved of her project to translate his speeches. And in one of the only pieces of Vichy propaganda Stein actually brought to press, a 1941 article on the French language in the Vichy journal La Patrie, Stein envisions a productive continuity between the political and cultural project of Pétain’s National Revolution and her own experimental writing. Even after the war, Stein continued to praise Pétain, stating that his 1940 armistice with Hitler had “achieved a miracle” (this, after Pétain had been sentenced to death by a French court for treason).
However, Edward Burns cautions against reading too much into Stein’s Pétain translations and supposes that she embarked on this endeavor mostly at Faÿ’s urging: “Probably without articulating it, he must have been convinced that if Stein did this translation it might be a bargaining chip to protect her and Toklas should the time ever arise when they were in danger. We just do not know how he proposed the project to her and what she knew about his motivation.” Essentially, though, he agrees with Will’s characterization of Stein’s embrace of the project: “In spite of a rapidly changing political situation inside and outside of France, Stein continued working on the translations. . . . We do not know why Stein continued to work on the translation (which was never published) as long as she did.” Burns’s defense of Stein in this regard is only to complicate the issue, as it should be complicated: alongside her acknowledged sympathy for Pétain, she also published in journals unfavorable to the Vichy regime and was friends with people who were active members of the French resistance. It does not seem that for Stein these activities were mutually exclusive.

Joan Retallack, also mobilized in the dossier in support of Stein, further highlights Stein’s Pétainism, writing that her reasons for it were “complicated” and grounded in the relationships she had with her neighbors in the villages she lived in during the war. In the best-case scenario, then, it seems that Stein was merely trying to keep her head down and get through an extremely fraught situation. She was by no means a Nazi or a collaborator. Still, Burns certainly doesn’t portray her in a very good light in regard to the mass arrests of Jews in France beginning in 1941: “How much of this did Stein know is difficult to determine. But it is impossible to believe that even in her small village in southeastern France she was not aware of what was happening around her.” Retallack writes, “How much Stein and Toklas understood (actually took into their consciousness) about the fate of Jewish deportees is questionable. No doubt there was self-protective denial.” Bear in mind, these quotes come from two of the primary essays linked in the Jacket2 dossier which is supposed to “set the record straight” about Stein’s war years. Whatever the case, as Marjorie Perloff writes in a response to an attack by Alan Dershowitz, we must remember “how complex the situation was in wartime France,” and I certainly can’t say that she’s wrong. As Bernstein writes, “When push comes to shove, as it has, I read Stein’s war years as a survivor’s tale.”

Such murky questions aside, both Retallack and Burns at the very least agree that Stein really did support Pétain on an ideological level. Retallack notes that “Stein’s controversial support of Vichy was related to her conservatism.” They both discuss Stein’s close relationship with Faÿ, who Burns (again, here a supposed Stein defender) characterizes as

a friend since the 1920s. Faÿ was a historian of the Eighteenth Century and a specialist in American intellectual history. He came from a family of bankers and lawyers with Royalist and Catholic ties. He was well-connected in the world of power, intellectual circles (he was Professor of American Civilization in the Collège de France), and in the world of the arts. Pétain appointed him Director of the Bibliothèque Nationale after dismissing the Jew, Julien Cain. In this position, Faÿ made frequent trips to Vichy and he became the eyes and ears for the Marshal in Paris.
Barbara Will rounds out the picture of Faÿ’s politics:
For Bernard Faÿ, who had known Philippe Pétain as the “Victor of Verdun” during the First World War, the Vichy regime with its dictatorial authoritarian creed was a salutary development after a century and a half of “democratic nonsense.” Elitist to the core, a royalist and a devout Catholic, Faÿ felt strongly that only a return to the political system and “spiritual values” of the ancien régime could restore France to its premodern, pre-Revolutionary glory.
In a New Yorker piece, Emily Greenhouse notes that Stein agreed with Faÿ’s politics: “in 1926, she increasingly warmed to his political thought, writing to him once that she ‘sees politics but from one angle, which is yours.’” It’s hard to know what aspects of Faÿ’s politics this might or might not be an endorsement of, but it does arrest one’s attention.

According to Will, further linking Stein to Faÿ,

In their individual writings and correspondence, we see a remarkable convergence of right-wing ideas and convictions. Both Stein and Faÿ agree that modernity, understood as the nineteenth-century development of industrial and organizational societies in France and America, has become the source of twentieth-century cultural decline. Both trace the roots of this decline to social changes that took place in the wake of the French and American revolutions, changes that had culminated in the disastrous governments of Franklin D. Roosevelt in America and Léon Blum in France.
Nothing in the Jacket2 dossier disputes the Faÿ connection or Stein’s own political beliefs.  She may not be (was not) a Nazi sympathizer, but isn’t what we know of her politics by now already bad enough?

Again, let’s agree that Stein was definitely not a Nazi and not a collaborator. What remains is the troubling connection with Faÿ (who Retallack notes was “indicted for collaboration after the war”) and Vichy ideas. The writers whom the dossier marshals to defend Stein (Burns and Retallack), it seems to me, do nothing to negate this connection or her Pétainism. Clearly, she embraced a right-wing politics that was the same kind of politics espoused by the Vichy regime and one of its functionaries.  For me, then, the Jacket2 dossier raises more questions than it answers. So Stein was not a Nazi — sure, that was easy! But she was an extreme conservative (Greenhouse quotes Stein in 1940: “I cannot write too much upon how necessary it is to be completely conservative that is particularly traditional in order to be free”). So why does Jacket2 seems so intent on defending her when she’s clearly on the right and just as elitist and anti-democratic as the likes of Eliot and Pound?

Now, I like Stein and I think her innovations are extremely important. Her experimental approach is still significant today, and in some ways she remains even more relevant than some of her modernist colleagues. But I can live with the fact that she held some pretty unpalatable political views, because this is no surprise; many of the premier modernists did. The charges of Nazi sympathies and collaboration most definitely need to be challenged, but I don’t have to feel alright about Stein’s politics in order to appreciate her work. Yes, it would be nice to think that her subversive use of language implied some sort of progressive thinking about the world of her day, but unfortunately that is not the case. Thus, given that the political makeup of Jacket2 does tend toward the progressive end of the spectrum (Bernstein did a great interview about Occupy Wall St., for example), it seems like the attempt to rehabilitate Stein politically is a circle that can’t be squared.

Okay, so Stein didn’t support Mussolini like Pound did, but is Pétain really that far behind him? Eliot is often scorned for his statement that “I am . . . a royalist in politics,” but Stein’s politics actually seem just as bad, if not worse (given that her close friend and political influence
Faÿ was involved with enacting such notions, whereas Eliot merely espoused them). She believes in the “great” individual over the regular people struggling to get by and eschews any role for government (to which they pay taxes) in helping them out. Joan Retallack, who (again) is framed in the dossier as a defender of Stein, observes Stein’s “political conservatism” and describes her vision of American politics like this: “She detested Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal because she thought it would sap the energy of individual initiative. American politics, in her opinion, had taken a wrong turn between the two Roosevelts.” If Stein were alive today, it seems, she would probably be a Tea Partier (in principle, if not in terms of social values), or at least a supporter of the Paul Ryan budget. No, nothing so dramatic as a Nazi sympathizer here, just a regular old right-wing elitist like Pound, Eliot, Yeats, etc. All of whom were also great writers.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Haniel Long

Long (R), with Witter Bynner (L), 1920s

Though fairly obscure now, Haniel Long (1888-1956) was a well-known and well-regarded poet who published in literary journals and anthologies alongside many of the major modernist figures of the day. For instance, Long appeared in Others for 1919: An Anthology of the New Verse (1920), edited by Alfred Kreymborg, which also included such poets as William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Mina Loy, Marianne Moore, Carl Sandburg, and Lola Ridge. He contributed to multiple issues of Poetry magazine, and, to list another example, his poem “Sand Storm” was published in the second issue of A Year Magazine (1933), which also featured an essay that Williams offered as part of “A Symposium: The Status of Radical Writing.” The critic Kenneth Burke characterized Long’s Pittsburgh Memoranda (Writers’ Editions, 1935) as “unquestionably suggest[ing] the magnitude and the quality of the psychological issues arising from the confused ways in which late capitalism both stimulates and frustrates ambition,” while Stanley Burnshaw in his joint review of Pittsburgh Memoranda and Wallace Stevens’s Ideas of Order devoted the bulk of the piece to Long.

His poetry collections are Poems (1920), Atlantides (1933), Pittsburgh Memoranda (1935), and The Grist Mill (1945).  In my opinion, by far his best is Pittsburgh Memoranda. Long’s most formally compelling offering, it is a pastiche of poetry, prose-poetry, and prose (the latter culled from a variety of sources including biography, journalism, historical accounts, correspondence, and personal conversation) — in this sense, it anticipates the method of William Carlos Williams’s Paterson. Denise Levertov, for one, considered the two works to be in the same category. Discussing the composition of her own long poem To Stay Alive (1971) in a 1972 interview, she stated that she sought “the elbowroom of a diary form, incorporating prose passages as Williams had done in Paterson . . . and as Haniel Long had done in Pittsburgh Memorandum [sic].”

A first edition of Pittsburgh Memoranda (1935), dust jacket (L) and book itself (R)

In a 1986 interview, the poet Ed Dorn remarked of Long, “He’s one of those minor, unknown, unread writers that can do more for you than anybody else,” and I have to agree. There is a sheer strength to his work, which, though it may defy easy categorization, is worthy of critical reconsideration now more than ever. And, as the United States appears to be going through economic upheavals not very unlike those of the 1930s (Long’s heyday), and as contemporary writers search for new ways to situate their own work in an ensuing social or political context, Long — particularly in Pittsburgh Memoranda — offers a potential way forward. Of course, Long could be said to be part of the broader zeitgeist of documentary art in the 1930s (to note a couple other examples, the first volume of Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony appeared in 1934, and Muriel Rukeyser’s “Book of the Dead” was published in 1938), but Long’s critique through poetry of corporate America is eerily relevant in our own era of Occupy Wall St. To me, Pittsburgh Memoranda is as fresh as the day it was published and stands on its own as — I’ll say it — a masterpiece, a shockingly overlooked masterpiece.

Most of Long’s books are out of print, but the University of Pittsburgh Press republished Pittsburgh Memoranda in 1990 (ISBN: 9780790917184), so it is fairly widely available from sellers online. Also, this site provides free PDF versions of the poetry collections Pittsburgh Memoranda and Atlantides, as well as the prose works Interlinear to Cabeza de Vaca (1936) and Malinche (1939). Further, it has his Walt Whitman & the Springs of Courage (1938), which is not only a critical work on Whitman but also Long’s broader poetic, political, and philosophic manifesto. All of these are well worth taking a look at.

A further thought: Some publisher ought to do a volume of Long's collected poems.

Page 1 of Pittsburgh Memoranda