Archive for July, 2011

Eros as delusion: Poet Helen Pinkerton tips her hat to Thomas Aquinas (and Yvor Winters)

Sunday, July 31st, 2011
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Helen's hero ... as seen by Bernardo Daddi

Helen Pinkerton‘s interview in Think Journal, “The Love of Being,” starts out slowly – but by the time she gets to Thomas Aquinas, she’s on a tear.

The octogenarian poet came from hardscrabble upbringing in Montana. Her father died in a mining accident when she was 11, leaving her mother with four children to raise – well, if you want that story, you can read it in my own article about her here.

Then, she landed at Stanford, where she was one of Yvor Winters‘ inner circle, along with folks like Janet Lewis, Thom Gunn, Edgar Bowers, Turner Cassity, and J.V. Cunningham.  Although she intended to be a journalism major, her plans changed abruptly: “Winters’ level of teaching, the kinds of topics he expected us to write about, the seriousness of his consideration of literary and philosophical questions of all sorts simply brought out in me a whole new capacity for thinking and writing.”  After that, and a course on narrative with Cunningham, she launched an alternative career as a poet and a Herman Melville scholar, too.

After that experience, Pinkerton found that her subsequent graduate work at Harvard “was a breeze and made little mark on me as a poet or a scholar.”

Fra Angelico's Aquinas

Winters described Pinkerton’s poetry as “profoundly philosophical and religious,” and she discusses how  Ben Jonson scholar William Dinsmore Briggs led her in that direction, though she never met him – his teaching on medieval and Renaissance learning “permeated” the work of Winters and Cunningham, she said.  Helen became preoccupied with the Thomistic notion of esse, and sees “nothingness” as the primary temptation of humankind.  Hence, her poem, “Good Friday” (included in her book Taken in Faith), which claims:

Nothingness is our need:
Insatiable the guilt
For which in thought and deed
We break what we have built.

But more than temptation – it is delusion.  “The chief aspect of the drive is the metaphysical assertion that nothingness is the real reality – that there is no real being.”

She links this drive with the thinking of the 19th and 20th century, particularly romanticism, which she sees as a drive toward annihilation.  “Real love is the love of being. Eros is the love of non-being”:

Helen, me, and the late Turner Cassity

I found my way out of it by grasping the Thomistic idea of God as self-existent being. There is no nothingness in reality. It is a kind of figment of the imagination. To believe that there is is a verbal trick – a snare and a delusion. Much of modern philosophy (Hegel, the Existentialists, et al.) are caught up in this delusive state of consciousness.

I do scorn and critique (always) “romantic religion” – or the religion of eros … as I call it – and I did see in others, as well as in myself – a pervasive “unavowed guilt” in our culture – based on an unavowed longing for “nothingness.” This is a kind of obsession of mine in my early thinking (and consequently in my poems) after I came to a realization of the nature of my consciousness. What was driving me to be dissatisfied with everything and everyone, including myself, was this “eros,” this craving for extremes of feeling, for a kind of perfection in things and in others.

Patrick Kurp has written some lovely stuff about Helen at Anecdotal Evidencehere, and here, and here … oh, just type “Pinkerton” into his search engine.  There’s lots.  I’m proud to have introduced them.

Meanwhile, an Yvor Winters reading was always mesmerizing.  You can get a taste of it in this recording from San Francisco’s Poetry Center on Valentine’s Day, 1958:

Yvor Winters Reading – 1958

The ongoing demise of the L.A. Times Book Review

Saturday, July 30th, 2011
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The “Incredible Shrinking Book Review Section,”  chapter 464:  this news from Publishers Weekly:

In a move as significant for its breadth as its implications for the future of book coverage, the Los Angeles Times book review laid off all of its freelance book reviewers and columnists on July 21.

Susan Salter Reynolds was with the Times for 23 years as both a staffer and freelancer and wrote the “Discoveries” column that appeared each week in the Sunday book review. She was told that her column was cancelled and will not be replaced by another writer. “I don’t know where these layoffs fit into the long-storied failure at the Times,” she said yesterday, “but these are not smart business decisions. This is shabby treatment.”

Four staffers remain in the book review section: David Ulin, Carolyn Kellogg, Nick Owchar, and [Jon] Thurber. In December 2009 the TimesTimes building.” Thurber did make an exception for Reynolds so she could come to the office to pick up the multiple review copies she received daily in order to produce her column.

In December 2009 the Times laid off 40 features writers, including Reynolds, but brought many of them back to work part-time. “We were paid about one-third of what we had been making, and lost our health insurance,” Reynolds says.

Reynolds nixed

Reynolds hadn’t quite finished having her say, and added in the comments section:  ‘There are probably ways to cut costs without eliminating a person’s entire income after twenty three years in one phone call. I offered to continue writing for very little money until things got better. Also the quote about continued commitment is insulting to readers’ intelligence. When I was laid off a year and a half ago I was assured by the editor of the book section that it was purely cost cutting and there would be no more hires. Next thing I knew he had become the book critic and then they hired a full time blogger one month later. I understand these are tough times but isn’t publishing a world in which expertise has some value?”

I remember writing for the Los Angeles Times Book Review back in the days when it was under the visionary leadership of Steve Wasserman (and Tom Curwen, too, as the deputy book edior).  We’re not talking the neolithic period – we’re talking about within the past decade.  In my opinion, it was at that time the best book review in the country, with articles that were intelligent, innovative, often reviewing off-the-beaten-track books that were going to influence our era, even if they didn’t make this year’s bestsellers list.

What a shame to see that legacy trashed.  By limiting itself to four writers, no matter how top-notch they might be, its isolating itself from the expertise that used to be its trademark.

Wrote Randy Rogers:  “Picking up my paper from the driveway this morning I looked at it and thought “If the LA Times gets any thinner I’m going to have to wait a few days just to have enough to line the bottom of a bird-cage.  Why am I still paying for this ghost of a rag?”

A Polish poet, an American archivist, and two summer reads

Thursday, July 28th, 2011
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Music to my ears.  The following from Joanna Szupinska in Cosmopolitan Review –  a transatlantic quarterly with a Polish angle:

Edited by journalist and author Cynthia L. Haven, the timely new collection An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz brings together 33 entries by friends and scholars of the poet from the U.S. and Poland who worked closely with him during his life – as students, colleagues, and translators – spanning his entire career. Biographical in nature, each essay reveals delightful anecdotes illustrating the subject’s personality, including his raucous laughter, insatiable appetite for food and whiskey, and deftness at producing cutting insults. Through the collected vignettes, the reader gets to know him as a faithful letter-writer, devoted teacher, and thoughtful translator. Taken together, the volume offers a portrait of Miłosz’s life philosophy as he applied it to the circumstances dealt him by Fate.

The book is organized in a roughly chronological progression: from the subject landing himself in trouble for subversive leftist activities during his student years at Stefan Batory University in Vilnius, to his work as the cultural attaché in the Polish consulate in New York directly following the Second World War, to his swift realization of the new government’s totalitarian approach and Miłosz’s resultant defection to France. We then follow him to his professorship at the University of California, Berkeley, and that Northern California city by the bay would become his home for the next four decades until his eventual, permanent return to Kraków in 2000. Offered up as little stories about the now world-famous poet by people who knew him, An Invisible Rope is a fun, quick read perfect for a few summer afternoons. The reader comes away feeling as if she knows this person as a man – no longer merely the picture of a legend. It compels the reader to revisit even his most well-known works, from The Captive Mind to Road-Side Dog, to be read anew, refreshed by the contextualization of a life lived.

Read the rest here.

I’m not the only one who got a few nice words this month.  Sarah Peasley Miller over at Information Management said this about The Ethical Archivist:

There may be a delightfully subversive message woven throughout The Ethical Archivist, a focused and remarkably readable guide for archivists. Author Elena Danielson, a consultant and archivist emerita of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, provides a tidy summary of the profession as seen through the prism of ethics.  …

Archivists’ role has evolved over the centuries from protecting benefactors’ secrets, to ensuring authenticity for public good, to promoting open and equal access. “The postmodern archivist has a more complex challenge: preserving a sense of trust in the face of massive change,” states Danielson.

As documents are increasingly stored digitally, and the sheer volume of records presents challenges for ensuring accuracy and allowing retrieval, the author addresses myriad implications and observes that archivists, as information brokers, “are at the center of the IT storm.”

How to find?  If you google “The Ethical Archivist Information Management” you can get to a free pdf.  If you go to the journal website, you hit a pay wall.  Go figure. (Elena talks about pay walls in her book….)

That time again: Bulwer-Lytton contest for bad writing

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011
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Bulwer-Lytton: No wonder he looks sad

And this year’s winner is … an Oshkosh professor, who wins the worst sentence of the year with this stinker:

Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.

Rather than hiding the dishonor, the University of Wisconsin even ran a picture of its grand prize winner, Suzanne Fondrie, in its newspaper.  Perhaps as a bad example to her students.

Try, try again

Fondrie has an additional distinction: Her 26-word entry is the shortest in the Bulwer-Lytton contest’s nearly 30-year history. It’s another proof of the old adage:  Shorter is better.  Or worse, in this case.

Fondrie is a salutary story for the rest of us:  If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

“I had two others (entries), but I guess they were too good to be bad,” Fondrie explained to UW Osh Kosh Today.

The prize is part of an annual bad writing competition launched in 1982 at San Jose State University. The contest was named after Victorian novelist Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton, an author infamous for writing the opening line: “It was a dark and stormy night.”

The runner up, Rodney Reed of Ooltewah, Tennessee, made a political statement with his entry:

As I stood among the ransacked ruin that had been my home, surveying the aftermath of the senseless horrors and atrocities that had been perpetrated on my family and everything I hold dear, I swore to myself that no matter where I had to go, no matter what I had to do or endure, I would find the man who did this . . . and when I did, when I did, oh, there would be words.

There certainly were.

You can read the rest of the winners here.


Anders Behring Breivik: Maybe he’s not insane

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011
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Copycat crimes

Anders Behring Breivik has left behind a screed,  and large parts of it appear to be lifted from another screed, penned by Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber.

Over a year ago, I interviewed Jean-Marie Apostolidès, the French literary scholar who befriended Kaczynski, at his lawyer’s request. Apostolidès also has a background as a psychologist.  He insists that Kaczynski is not insane.

I wrote then:

The translation of Kaczynski’s 1995 manifesto, which Apostolidès began the day after he read it in the Washington Post, was the first step in a longer journey. The next began with a secret.

“In the past, I was in a certain way tied to a secret that I think has no more value,” he explained. Shortly after the arrest, Apostolidès was approached by Kaczynski’s team of lawyers, who said they were concerned for the prisoner’s sanity and well-being in prison.

The Unabomber ... in Berkeley days

“They thought I would be a perfect penpal,” he said. Apostolidès was told to keep the correspondence secret even from his family. Thus began a brief, lopsided correspondence screened by Kaczynski’s lawyers and the FBI.

The brief correspondence did not go smoothly: “He did not want to talk to me; he wanted to preach. I detest that,” he said. “On one side he was scolding me, on the other side complimenting me.”

In retrospect, Apostolidès thinks the lawyers wanted him to help certify Kaczynski was insane. Yet, he said, “I’m convinced he has neurotic problems – but no more than anyone else. He has to be judged on his ideas and his deeds.” Our insistence on his insanity may be a way to avoid grappling with that, he said.

In an interview, Apostolidès leaned forward across the desk in his campus office and his voice dropped: “This will shock you. He’s a very nice guy, sweet, open-minded. And I know he has blood on his hands. You cannot be all bad – even if you kill, even Hitler.”

We would like our villains to be 100 percent evil, psychotic Snidely Whiplashes counting money in the backroom. (Look at the outcry at the portrayal of Hitler in the 2004 film Downfall.) We are uncomfortable when they look even a little bit like us, but such ambiguity is the stuff of life, said Apostolidès.

The most obvious ambiguity may be centered within Apostolidès himself. He admits he has a longstanding interest in avant-garde ideas – but he writes about radical thoughts from the safe perch of a university professorship and his comfortable home on the Stanford campus. In short, as a part of the petite bourgeoisie Kaczynski despises.

Kaczynski’s manifesto argues that the leftist liberals who present themselves as rebels are, in fact, obedient servants of the dominant society – a symptom of “oversocialization.” He singles out “university intellectuals” as prime examples.

Apostolidès, who says he wouldn’t kill a fly, finds the criticism “absolutely appropriate.”

Right again, René

We have our little boxes for people.  “Christian fundamentalist” – although Breivik insists in his own screed that he’s not religious (“Although I am not a religious person myself, I am usually in favor of a revitalization of Christianity in Europe” p. 676) .  “Psychopath,” though he has no criminal record, and his former stepmother describes him as a nice guy.

Perhaps we are dealing with a new psychology, a new class of criminal – aided and abetted by technology and mass communication – and none of our usual boxes fit.  Perhaps psychology itself doesn’t fit.  As Apostolidès said, some in this growing class of murderers are more than willing to kill brutally to promote their ideas.

A scary thought, and apparently a contagious one.  Each atrocity attempts to outdo the other in scope and depravity.  It seems like we are trapped, globally, in an irreversible spiral of imitated violence.  Violence, as René Girard notes, spreads mimetically like a fever over the planet.

Postscript on 7/27: Thanks to Morgan Meis of 3quarksdaily for the mention today.

Jack Foley’s “chronoencyclopedia” – California poets and poetry in 1,287 pages

Sunday, July 24th, 2011
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Altogether, Jack Foley has written 1,287 pages on California poetry – and that’s only 65 years of it, from 1940-2005. It’s a feat that would not go unremarked in an earlier era – say, five years ago. But at a time when book review sections are folding left, right, and center  …  crickets.

Visions & Affiliations: A California Literary Time Line, Poets & Poetry, volumes one and two,  published last March by Pantograph Press, is a “chronoencyclopedia scene” describing, as Jack says on his title page, “the twentieth century in all its confused and troubled eloquence.”  Jack spent a decade documenting the writers, poems, and events in a tumbling, giddy present tense, from the first page when Kenneth Rexroth, in 1940, “invents the culture of the West Coast,” according to Robert Hass.

That’s the moment, writes Jack, when “California’s image had changed. The state had moved out of its early provincialism and had begun to take its place in the nation as a whole.”

According to the product description on amazon:

People, ideas, and stories appear, disappear, and reappear as the second half of the century moves forward. Poetry is a major element in this kaleidoscopic California scene. It is argued about, dismissed, renewed, denounced in fury, asserted as divine, criticized as pornographic. Poetry is as Western as the Sierra foothills, and the questions raised here go to its very heart. Beginning with the publication of Kenneth Rexroth’s first book, this all-encompassing history-as-collage plunges us forward into the 21st Century. California authors keep generating massive anthologies in an attempt to tame the chaos of California, to pretend it isn’t there. Yet there it is—staring them in the face like a great bear, alive, hungry and more than a little dangerous.

What could be more Californian?

Jack was introduced to me about a decade ago by Dana Gioia, who is acknowledged as a motivating force in getting the project launched.

The Oakland-based poet and critic has a radio show, “Cover to Cover,” aired on Wednesdays at 3 p.m. on Berkeley station KPFA (it’s available at the KPFA web site – see here).  His column, “Foley’s Books,” appears in the online magazine The Alsop Review.