Posts tagged US
why, I often wondered
why was I a poet,
first of all
most of all, I wanted
to have been a bird
if I could have been a bird
but I wanted the starlings
to have been fed,
first of all
A guest post by Dan Visel of With Hidden Noise:
No one reads Pamela Moore, though that may be about to change as Chocolates for Breakfast is being reprinted by Harper Perennial. Moore was briefly a celebrity: Chocolates for Breakfast was published in 1956, when she was eighteen and a student at Barnard; she was trumpeted as America’s answer to Françoise Sagan. Chocolates is an astonishingly precocious book: though garishly billed as a sexual free-for-all, it’s actually a very controlled Bildungsroman set in Hollywood; it’s notable not only for the forthright way in which Moore presents adolescent angst but also for its sympathetic portrayal of gay men and women. The novel sold well and remained in print in Europe; it soon disappeared in the United States.
In the next six years, Moore published three more novels, The Pigeons of St. Mark’s Place (given the alternate titles East Side Story and Diana), The Exile of Suzy-Q (also called Teenybopper), and The Horsy Set, though none received the attention that Chocolates for Breakfast had. Published as paperbacks, they were given lurid covers and blurbs (“Loaded with sex,” said the Richmond Times-Dispatch about The Horsy Set) which belie the deadly seriousness of a writer who was writing letters to the New York Times about the ignorance of their review of Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke. In 1964, at the age of 25, she committed suicide; she was at work on a fifth novel, Kathy on the Rocks, which remains unpublished.
Chocolates for Breakfast receives most of the attention, but Moore’s other novels are also worthy of attention, particularly The Horsy Set, published in 1962. Here, Moore uses the first person to describe the months around the eighteenth birthday of Brenda Stilwall, an aspiring show rider in the booze-soaked world of Westchester. Though there’s plenty of money, there’s no real glamor to be found, something clear from the first chapter where the virginal Brenda sets out her writing project and world view:
I mean there’s a whole area of life that’s muddy to me no matter how much I hear or read about it. So sometimes I listen to people and I don’t understand them and I know they’re talking from that mud; they’re talking about how it feels and tastes and smells, and I get dizzy thinking I’d know just what was going on if only I took one little step and sank into that sea of mud with them, because they’re all in it together. All the parents in Scarsdale, and I guess in Westchester and I guess in the whole world, are up to their hips in that mud and waving to each other and talking about how it feels. And I just watch them and listen with my mouth open like an idiot, standing on the edge and leaning out to that slippery, sucking muck of a sea, wishing I could look through the mud and see the bottom they’re standing on because the way it looks to me the world doesn’t have any bottom where people could plant their feet like the roots of a scarred old tree. (pp. 8–9.)
In a sense, The Horsy Set might be read as a nightmarish reworking of The Catcher in the Rye, published a decade earlier; but Brenda’s gimlet eye exorcizes Salinger’s maudlin daydreams for decadence. The mud that’s referred to is sex, of course; but it’s also a realization that the carefree bourgeois world in which Brenda comes to adulthood is ineluctably flawed. Brenda’s mother, a chorus girl who married a rich financier, divorces him to marry her riding instructor; the riding instructor tries bribing Brenda to talk her mother out of the marriage. Brenda has a thoroughly horrible Harvard boyfriend trying to make his name by writing a play in the style of Noel Coward and spending ludicrous amounts of money on upscale prostitutes. (Her mother writes from Reno: “Frankly, darling, Larry will make you a perfect first husband.” ) A lieutenant from West Point arrives at the riding stable to train for the Olympics and become an alternate love interest; he is mocked for being a hick. The drunken women at the stable, competing for the riding instructor’s attentions, are attempting to poison each others’ horses. Several people fall off of horses into manure.
Writing about Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke in the aforementioned note to the Times, Moore noted that:
This book is not pure fantasy; it is an exaggerated but fundamentally true picture of yesterday’s Poland, and as such serves to explain the Poles of today far better than the many journalistic studies of Poland.
Mutatis mutandis, she might have been talking about The Horsy Set and the emerging Americans of the 1960s. One aspect of the novel that might not be immediately obvious fifty years later is how retrospective its portrayal is. The action is set ten years earlier, at the close of the Korean War: the Army Reorganization Act had recently dissolved the cavalry. Richard Kar, the lieutenant, knows that his horse training is worthless, especially as one in three of his fellow graduates have died in Korea; making the Olympic team is of value only in keeping him from being deployed. Similarly, the horsy set is a doomed way of life: legalization of the Pill and The Feminine Mystique would radically change the role of women. Brenda finds herself in a $500 brothel on the Upper East Side; Harvard students are given a $400 discount. The numbers are absurd, but women are clearly a commodity to be bought and sold. Even the names of women are controlled by men: born Betsy Baroczy, she becomes Brenda Stilwall when her mother marries up and needs a name less redolent of immigration for her daughter; Brenda considers taking her boyfriend’s name if they marry.
But what stands out most about The Horsy Set is the unrelenting darkness it presents; in its depiction of depression, it prefigures The Bell Jar, which would be published the next year. Mud is never far from Brenda’s mind; she sees herself sinking further into a despoiled adult world where nothing can save her. This risks falling into existential cliché, but Moore’s heroine is interestingly anti-literary: she’s not going to college (“Mother says I’m not college material and would only clutter up the campus and there’s a professor shortage in this country.”). High school was uninteresting to her, aside from her senior term paper, “Training the Horse Trains the Rider”; but what she learns in the stable is the bestiality of those around her. An escape route is presented in Lieutenant Kar, who botches his Olympic trial so that he can be deployed by Germany, taking Brenda with him. The novel ends on this note of hope of salvation, but it’s clearly false: to escape, Kar has thrown himself into the mud.
A 1997 essay from The Baffler by Robert Nedelkoff presents a good overview of Moore’s life and work; her son, Kevin Kanarek, has put together a website on his mother’s work, as well as a biographical essay in the new Chocolates for Breakfast which goes some way to explaining the neglect that her writing fell into. An essay on the different editions of Chocolates for Breakfast is also illuminating: in the preface to the French edition of the book, which contained content expurgated from the American version, Moore explains the self-censorship she’d employed there:
It is difficult for us to offer each reader the unvarnished truth, especially when it concerns the essential conflict that exists between the principles of our way of life and the demands of the human condition. This conflict lies latent in all the hearts in our country and torments many of us. We turn away from this terrifying truth with what I would term a kind of collective bad faith. This is what led me to express myself with some reticence in the course of my initial work. But after having reflected on it, I felt obliged to try to arrive at the causes of this moral crisis that so afflicts the youth whom I describe in this book.
[The following is a submission from David Winters, a literary critic who writes for the Times Literary Supplement, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and various other publications. He is a co-editor at 3:AM Magazine. His twitter handle is @davidcwinters, and links to his work are collected at his website, www.whynotburnbooks.com.]
Heywood Orren (or “Hob”) Broun (1950-1987) published three books in his brief lifetime, none of which are widely known today. But Broun’s intense, eccentric fictions ought to be more than a mere footnote to modern American literary history.
His first book, Odditorium (Harper & Row, 1983) could ostensibly be called a “novel,” although it digressively destabilises “character,” “story,” and almost all other hallmarks of the form. A seedy, pulpy pinball game of botched drug deals and bungling gunplay, the book’s pleasure lies in its unpredictability; to read it is to watch it run off the rails.
Broun’s next text, Inner Tube (Knopf, 1985), was acquired by legendary editor Gordon Lish, whose stylistic influence can be felt throughout Broun’s subsequent work. By now Broun had become—a little like Barry Hannah, another author from Lish’s stable—a writer less of conventional “sentences” than of freewheeling, aphoristic riffs. But beyond this, Inner Tube displays a brilliant strain of misanthropy that is all Broun’s own. The book begins with the narrator’s mother committing suicide by putting her head through a TV screen. Compelled to escape this constitutive trauma (plus his incestuous lust for his sister), he flees into an increasingly fractured, ersatz social world. Along the way, man is revealed as merely
an over-evolved creature whose most dangerous enemies come from within… Imagine the first useless panic, the first nightmare, the first crushing turn of anomie. Ten thousand generations later, all we can do is palliate. Misery abhors a vacuum, and history is a list of sedatives.
Eventually Broun’s narrator escapes from this failed civilization, leaving to live alone in the desert. Inner Tube’s plot provides no palliation; instead it presents a pessimistic awareness that “we are animals. All the consoling fabrications must be waived.”
Six chapters into writing Inner Tube, Broun underwent emergency surgery to remove a tumour surrounding his spine. He lived, but was left paralysed from the neck down. As he said to his agent at the time, the surgeons had “snipped every God-damn wire.” From now on, Broun’s very breath was brought about by a respirator. His deep depression during this period is perhaps easy to appreciate. What is remarkable, however, is the way in which he overcame it—willing himself, against all odds, to go on writing.
Broun finished Inner Tube, and wrote the stories collected in Cardinal Numbers (Knopf, 1988) by means of a mechanical prosthesis: an oral catheter (known as a “sip-and-puff device”) connected to a Franklin Ace 2000 computer, running a customised word processer triggered by Broun’s breath whenever a letter flashed on the screen.
It’s worth remembering how much he resented this set-up: had he “had hands,” as he put it, he would rather have written on a 1948 Remington, a picture of which he kept pinned to his wall. Nonetheless, this method suggests a rich metaphor for the role of “technique” in recent American writing. Academics like Mark McGurl have remarked on an implicit “technicity”—a technological turn of the imagination—in the way certain writers conceive of their craft. Ben Marcus, for instance, describes writing as “a delivery-system for feeling,” a machine that mediates emotion using rhetorical mechanisms. This terminology is echoed in the title of the course he teaches at Columbia: “Technologies of Heartbreak.” In a sense, Broun presents an extreme (and, of course, tragically enforced) example of this emphasis on taut, fraught, high-stakes execution.
In Marcus’s formulation, the flipside of technique, or technicity, is raw emotional urgency. And this, above all, is what matters most about Broun. Among more well-known writers, his linguistic manoeuvres most closely resemble those of Sam Lipsyte—another author profoundly shaped by Lish’s painstaking approach to sentence construction. Each writer, in his way, illustrates the Lishian dictum that “every morpheme, every phoneme counts.” The point, though, is that such stylistic exactitude mustn’t be misread as emotionless. Observing my interest in what could crudely be called the “Lish line” of fiction, a friend of mine once claimed that he couldn’t see any “angst” beneath the pyrotechnics; any “existential” pressure. Broun’s prose provides powerful proof of why this is wrong. Without doubt, here was a writer, as Lipsyte has said of him, for whom “every word was hard won.”
Broun’s best book by far is his last, the story collection Cardinal Numbers. Written in clipped, compressed sentences, these stories share a surface similarity that some might mislabel as “minimalism.” But Broun was only a minimalist in the simple, quantitative sense of being able to squeeze nineteen stories into 150 pages. The fact is that Cardinal Numbers gleefully runs the gamut of literary forms, from fabulism to free association. The standout story, “Highspeed Linear Main St.,” is a shifting, swerving improvisation about modern art and sensory overload. At one point its manic narrator pauses for breath and announces: “modus operandi: montage, collage, bricolage.”
As with other books on his list at Knopf, Lish himself wrote the jacket copy for Cardinal Numbers. In 2013, it’s hard to imagine any commercially-minded publisher countenancing the ecstatic rant that graces this book’s flaps. As is made abundantly clear here, Broun’s stories arose from
a tension quite special to those whose lives must be lived in the face of calamitously punishing circumstances. Such conditions of existence produced in Hob Broun a living instance of the Beckettian principle I can’t go on; I must go on, and accordingly made of his fiction a kind of literary embodiment of these opposing statements. To be sure, it is this very irony that suffuses the stories in this book, and that imparts to them the heartaching air of hope struggling between moments of its being successively suffocated and set aflame. These entries should be read as a map of the will of their author to keep on.
This will is what’s behind the lasting value of Broun at his best. Stymied by life, he brought life to his words; the writing of fiction was, he once said, “the focus of what I’m surviving for.” To pour all of oneself into writing; this is the challenge his stories set for any would-be author who reads them. And it’s why they still stand, decades later, as urgent, ultimately exuberant examples of how writing can address what Lish has called “the problem of being alive.” In its audacious inventiveness, Cardinal Numbers measures itself against the life its author could not live. Any paralysis, it seems to say, can be briefly escaped in feats of verbal velocity; in fiction’s reach for freedom.
The papers record that Hob Broun died in 1987, accidentally asphyxiated when his respirator broke down. He was 37 years old. “Ice Water,” the opening story of Cardinal Numbers, was recently reprinted in New York Tyrant, one of America’s leading literary magazines. At the time of his death, Broun had begun work on a third novel, reportedly called Wild Coast, Wild Coast, which, to our loss, no one will ever read.
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The following is a submission from Molly Parent, who, in light of Kate Zambreno’s recently published study Heroines, considers the special cases of two writers no one reads: Vivienne Eliot and Zelda Fitzgerald. (Ed.)
* * *
Kate Zambreno’s Heroines—a thoughtful, confessional, research-rich book recently published by Semiotext(e)—focuses on the mythology and the actualities of a particular camp of writers no one reads: the mad wives of modernism.
While some of these women, including Jane Bowles, Jean Rhys, and Djuna Barnes, had brilliant but often under-acknowledged literary careers, the words of many of their contemporaries never made it onto—or, considering their perpetual role as characters in others’ fictions, off of—the page.
One such woman is Vivien(ne) Eliot, wife of T.S, who preferred to drop the last two letters from her name, the most transparent pseudonymous identity of a handful she used throughout her life. A pal of the Bloomsbury group (in a sense: Virginia Woolf once described her as “the bag of ferrets Tom wears around his neck”), Vivienne was assumed not to have much literary talent of her own. She frequently wrote semi-autobiographical short stories, an activity condescendingly prescribed as an exercise to soothe her “nerves”. Zambreno writes: “Eliot praised her mind as being ‘not at all a feminine one,’ which reveals only Eliot’s bias, not any truth regarding her prose style, or even regarding his.”
Still, Vivienne’s mind was capable of co-editing The Criterion, the Eliots’ quarterly literary magazine. Writing under a pen name, many of her contributions were based on Bloomsbury gossip; Zambreno describes her as “the bored yet alienated female Prufrockian narrator who listens in and cattily, wittily exhumes.” (One of many in a line of literary gossips, of course. “Or,” as Elizabeth Hardwick said, “as we gossips like to call it, character analysis.”) This was not always well received, and eventually Tom gave in to the complaints of his social circle and shut down the publication. It reappeared a year later as The New Criterion. Vivienne was banned from contributing.
Soon after, the Eliots’ marriage began unraveling, along with Vivienne’s mental health, though this tumultuous time coincided with a feverish period of literary activity on her part. Ultimately, Tom arranged for a formal separation—so formal, in fact, that he instructed his friends and business partners to cut off contact with his estranged wife and to not tell her where he was, a move that baffled and further unhinged her.
Vivienne’s life from that point on was marked by desperation, ill health and psychiatric wards. Despite this, she still produced a prolific amount of journaling, which she at least saw as valuable: “You who in my later years will read these very words of mine,” she wrote in a diary entry in 1934, “and will be able to trace a true history of this epoch, by my Diaries and Papers.” Their value did not go unnoticed by certain interested parties; Vivienne’s diaries and papers cannot be accessed without permission of the estate of Eliot’s second (recently deceased) wife Valerie. Should one wish to read Vivienne’s writing without navigating such litigious waters, her most concise and heartbreaking prose may be found in an advertisement she tried to place in the paper after Tom’s departure. It reads:
Will T.S Eliot please return to his home, 68 Clarence Gate Gardens, which he abandoned Sept. 17th, 1932.
A few years later, a more famous literary wife would experience a similar litany of institutionalization and silencing despite a more focused literary ambition. Zelda Fitzgerald, remembered mostly as an emblem of the flapper lifestyle and as Scott’s less stable half, wrote the entirety of her one novel, Save Me The Waltz, in a six-month stay at the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic in Baltimore (one of multiple institutions to which she was committed throughout her life). The novel drew heavily on autobiography, which posed a problem for Scott, who tended to use facts about Zelda to color the novels that had made him quite famous—and it happened to share some such content with a draft he had been agonizing over for the last seven years. Luckily for him, editors took the side of the literary heavyweight and not the notorious nut job. Save Me The Waltz, with much of it slashed out by Scott’s pen, was eventually published to “meh” reviews. Tender is the Night, the seven-year masterpiece, fared much better.
Undeterred, Zelda had designs for a second novel, which Scott, with the help of doctors (enlisted by him) and editors (his), firmly and rather brutally talked her out of pursuing. In Heroines, Zambreno quotes the transcripts of one such “psychiatric evaluation”:
The doctor tells Zelda that if she could not write “masterpieces” like her husband, then her “ambitions” would only further “depress” her. “I will always be unhappy then,” she said. “I was a good deal more unhappy when I did not want to write.” She finally agrees to what the doctor prescribes… she is forbidden from writing fiction that draws on a shared biography (in other words, her own life.)
As such, should one wish to read Zelda, one of the truest ways to do so may be to read Scott, whose writing often lifted entire phrases from her letters or speech. The most famous and eerily aware of these is Zelda’s exclamation at the birth of their daughter, which became one of the most recognizable of Daisy’s lines in Gatsby: “Isn’t she smart—she has the hiccups,” Zelda said upon seeing her child, having stated moments before that she herself was drunk for the occasion. “I hope it’s beautiful and a fool—a beautiful little fool.” And so Zelda the myth lives in fiction, Scott the myth lives as its author.
Zelda died in a fire in the hospital where she was finally institutionalized for schizophrenia. An incorrect date was printed on her tombstone, and her husband’s words placed literally atop her grave.
Despite the tragedy and justified anger in which Heroines is steeped, it ends with something like hope regarding the idea of being read. After all, the book is a chronicle of Zambreno’s obsession with reading these unread or unreadable women, an exorcism of their ghosts that produced the thing they longed for: their words, their truths, in print. And, Zambreno argues, today the internet provides a forum for questioning the cannon and a community that informs, supports and reads each other, one that may have aided Vivienne and Zelda had they been granted access. In a poignant shift in the book’s last twenty pages, Zambreno suddenly turns her narrative towards a you – triumphantly, a reader, and if you take up her charge, a writer, a decider of the mythology. The question, as she puts it: “Who gets to be remembered and who does not?”
No one reads the poems of Carolyn Rodgers (Dec. 14, 1940-April 2, 2010). She was a key member of the Black Arts Movement and a student of Gwendolyn Brooks. As so often happens with women in the arts, she was chastised for what men were celebrated for. Here she addresses the use of profanity in a poem:
—from "The Last M.F."
that i should not use the word
in my poetry or in any speech i give.
that i must and can only say it to myself
as the new Black Womanhood suggests
a softer self
a more reserved speaking self. they say,
that respect is hard won by a woman
who throws a word like muthafucka around
and so they say because we love you
throw that word away, Black Woman …
that i only call muthafuckas, muthafuckas
so no one should be insulted.
How I Got Ovah: New and Selected Poems was a finalist for the National Book Award (1976). Over time she shifted away from revolutionary and militant themes to more personal concerns but she never neglected the plight of being poor and black in America:
"East of New Haven"
you see so many
these little towns
out in the open
spaces & places.
i guess big cities
have not enough space for the
let alone the dead.
there is so much
and back home in
chicago we would call
them rocks, lying all on the ground(s)
lots of rocks around / but
you would call them
see how much smoother
the world is.
the farther east we
the more frequent
are the stops at rich small
quaint towns and the more frequent
are the admonitions to “watch one’s
ticket on the rack above the seat
or to be very sure to take it with
you if you leave your seat!”
the very wealthy,
as i ride the train
watching the many white students
eating out of brown paper
sacks, saving their now
money so that they can
be the very wealthy later
Carolyn Rodgers will be inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame in 2012.
Perhaps a few more people will read her poems now.
No one reads Margaret Anderson’s and Jane Heap’s Little Review but it was one of the preeminent literary publications of the ’10s and ’20s. Along with Poetry, Blue Sky Press, and countless other forgotten magazines and presses started in Chicago early in the 20th century, The Little Review introduced adventurous readers to some of best writers of the day. Anderson started it in 1914, reportedly declaring at a party with other Chicago literary types, that it was time for a magazine which “would make no compromise with public taste.” In time that sentiment became part of its masthead. She had many admirers, among them a very young Ben Hecht, who was apparently heartbroken when she moved away to New York. Jane Heap joined as an editor in 1916. She was a far less public figure than Anderson, often referred to in the pages of their journal as just “jh.” The two women maintained a professional and romantic relationship that lasted until about 1925.
In 1917 they took on Ezra Pound as an editor and moved to New York. A year later they began to serialize James Joyce’s Ulysses, which would bring them their highest acclaim as well as their greatest infamy. Anderson, as publisher, was tried for obscenity but remained defiant. The magazine continued to publish feminist, anarchist, and surrealist articles and art that was often at great odds with the tastes of established American society.
In 1923 Anderson and Heap moved their base of operations to Paris to join Pound, but by 1925 the two women parted ways—Anderson remained in Europe and Heap assumed head editorship of their magazine and went back to New York. She continued The Little Review until 1929 when she grew disillusioned and was forced to conclude bitterly that “Modern art has finally come into its own…advertising.”
Margaret Anderson eventually wrote a three-volume autobiography chronicling her time as a publisher as well as her many illustrious years in the company of literary and artistic high society thereafter. Of her role in the creative world, she said, “I had vicarious experience of the artist’s ecstasy without having had to undergo the daily lonely labor of the functioning virtuoso. I have been a cheat, and no one has ever been more rewarded for cheating.”
No one reads Vachel Lindsay (1879–1931) these days, though were he around he’d probably prefer to read his poems to you himself. Lindsay believed in dramatizing his writings, referring to it sometimes as “singing poetry” and other times as “Higher Vaudeville”. He can be considered one of the progenitors of our slam-poetry and performance art.
He was born in Springfield, Illinois into a family devoted to the Cambellite sect of Christianity. He tried his hand at visual art but was told by painter Robert Henri that he was more of a poet. Soon after Lindsay was trying to peddle his poems to dubious passersby in the street. He saw his purpose on earth to preach his “Gospel of Beauty” to the people.
His fame rose in the 1910s due in large part to his ecstatic public recitals. He gained notice from the likes of William Butler Yeats and the then-nascent Poetry Magazine. Robert Frost said of him: “Some of these poets seem to get in a corner and gnaw their fingernails and try to get a dark corner, you know, and try to go crazy so they will qualify. There’s none of that in Vachel. He was just crazy in his own right; he did some of the strangest things.”
He paid tribute to many prominent people of his day, including Lincoln:
Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight (In Springfield, Illinois)
It is portentous, and a thing of state
That here at midnight, in our little town
A mourning figure walks, and will not rest,
Near the old court-house pacing up and down,
Or by his homestead, or in shadowed yards
He lingers where his children used to play,
Or through the market, on the well-worn stones
He stalks until the dawn-stars burn away.
A bronzed, lank man! His suit of ancient black,
A famous high top-hat and plain worn shawl
Make him the quaint great figure that men love,
The prairie-lawyer, master of us all.
He cannot sleep upon his hillside now.
He is among us:—as in times before!
And we who toss and lie awake for long,
Breathe deep, and start, to see him pass the door.
His head is bowed. He thinks of men and kings.
Yea, when the sick world cries, how can he sleep?
Too many peasants fight, they know not why;
Too many homesteads in black terror weep.
The sins of all the war-lords burn his heart.
He sees the dreadnaughts scouring every main.
He carries on his shawl-wrapped shoulders now
The bitterness, the folly and the pain.
He cannot rest until a spirit-dawn
Shall come;—the shining hope of Europe free:
A league of sober folk, the Workers’ Earth,
Bringing long peace to Cornland, Alp and Sea.
It breaks his heart that things must murder still,
That all his hours of travail here for men
Seem yet in vain. And who will bring white peace
That he may sleep upon his hill again?
—from Congo and other poems (1915)
Lindsay caused a lot of controversy with his most famous poem, “The Congo” for its racism and for romanticizing “the noble savage.” He never understood the criticisms and spent considerable time defending himself against detractors like W.E.B. Debois. Listen to him reading “The Congo” and other poems here.
As with many poets he had a hard time making a steady living. He crisscrossed the country performing his poems to pay down his considerable debts in his last years until he lapsed into despondency and committed suicide by drinking a bottle of Lysol.
His last words were, “They tried to get me — I got them first!”
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No one reads Robert Herrick (1868–1938) any more. Even fewer read his novels than read the lyric poems of his 17th Century namesake. Despite his cherubic countenance Herrick wasn’t a particularly happy man and saw his lot in life in stark terms—
"In Search of One’s Soul"
The image of man toiling up desolate windswept heights, with some unknown destination, unrealized aim. As the journey progresses the scene has grown wilder, sterner, more desolate, less distracting, less peopled, and less cumbered…[H]e is more and more definitely conscious that his pursuit is necessary, inevitable, and that its sole consolation is that at each stage he finds himself strong enough to rise and resume the toilsome way, without enthusiasm or emotional delight, perceiving more clearly that the road will be increasingly lonely, severe, and the end defeat… The reward? Somewhere, somehow, around some dark, forbidding cliff he will come face to face with himself, entire, complete.
Herrick was a prolific and well-respected novelist in his day, turning out some thirteen titles in a realist, social-commentary vein. Praised by the likes of William James, he was described as a less-vitriolic Upton Sinclair. He arrived in Chicago in 1893 amid World’s Fair fever and was professor of English at the University of Chicago from its inception until he quit abruptly in 1923, feeling like he didn’t get his due from the university. He settled scores with William Harper (who helped found the University and recruited Herrick away from Harvard) and other perceived and real enemies in his prose. His relationship with Chicago was also somewhat ambivalent:
"Chicago is an instance of a successful, contemptuous disregard of nature by man. Other great cities have been called gradually into existence about some fine opportunity suggested by nature, at the junction of fertile valleys, or on a loving bend of a broad river, or in the inner recesses of a sea-harbour, where nature has pointed out, as it were, a spot favourable for life and growth. In the case of Chicago, man has decided to make for himself a city for his artificial necessities in defiance of every indifference displayed by nature."—from The Gospel of Freedom (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1898)
After leaving Chicago he turned away from academia and literature. In 1935, he was appointed as a Secretary to the United States Virgin Islands, finding respect and a measure of peace in those sunnier climes.
Herrick was suggested to me by local treasure, Paul Durica, proprietor of the Pocket Guide to Hell.
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Daniel Levin Becker is the youngest member of the Oulipo, a writing group or secret society or “bunch of nerds” who employ constraints in the construction of elaborate—whether apparent or not—literary works. The Oulipo, an acronym for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, which translates into something like “Workshop for Potential Literature,” includes many eminent (and/or obscure) members among its ranks: Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, Harry Mathews, and Anne Garréta, among others.
Many Subtle Channels (Harvard University Press, 2012) is Levin Becker’s history of the group and his role within it. It’s unique among its kind: an accessible, intelligent, and often funny examination of a phenomenon that has more often been treated academically. While there are other good works on the Oulipo in English, Many Subtle Channels offers the most human account of the benefits of potential literature. I find it hard to imagine a more ideal introduction to the group.
Stephen (SS) recently talked to Daniel about constraints, potential, and picketing zipper factory employees.
One of the more charming characteristics of Many Subtle Channels are the footnotes scattered throughout the text. You mentioned that your publisher… suggested… that you cut several. Are there any excised notes you particularly care to share with the world?
Ooh, what an offer. (I have a project in the queue—where it’s probably of more use to everyone than in any sort of incarnation—called “Index of murdered darlings,” consisting entirely of things I was compelled, by my editor or by better judgment, to excise from MSC.) I was actually trying the other day to find an early footnote about the supposed “pirate translations” of the essay in which Calvino breaks down the algorithm he used for If on a winter’s night a traveler, and could find no trace of it anywhere. Weird! Anyway, here are three:
42 That’s right: Perec was an anticipatory plagiarist of Salt-n-Pepa.
207 Flarf is also related, temperamentally if not officially, to Spoetry, the art of composing poetry based on input from spam email text. Although Flarf and noulipo dovetail thanks to their mutual interest in “conjunctive/accumulative” procedures, the former is decidedly more surrealist than oulipian or post-oulipian, insofar as it surrenders a great deal of the control to outside circumstances. Google is a good generative device, but one is not in control of the algorithms it uses, unless one is very, very high up on the totem pole at Google—and this eliminates from Flarfian experiment the essential possibility of opening the hood to mess with the engine.
218 Paris is, however, a French city, which means at least a few of the businesses on any commercial street are bound to have some kind of awful pun for a name, hearty wordplay being as natural to the French as casual racism—which doesn’t make Paris that much more oulipian but does make the Oulipo much more Parisian. (This is, for the record, Mathews’s answer whenever anyone asks him whether the Oulipo is inherently French: it’s inherently Parisian. He pronounces the word to rhyme with derision.)
Can you tell us a little bit about how the Oulipo is constituted? How does one become a member of the group? How does one avoid becoming a member (or being a member after one is inducted)?
One becomes a member first by attending one of the Oulipo’s monthly meetings as a guest of honor and presenting whatever it is of one’s work that dovetails with oulipian interests, then by being unanimously elected by the group. One can avoid becoming a member very easily: by asking to be a member and thereby becoming permanently ineligible for membership. After one is inducted one cannot quit or be kicked out; the only official way to leave the group is to commit suicide for no purpose other than to leave the group, and to do so in the presence of a notary. A few people have distanced themselves from the group’s activities by just sort of ceasing to participate, but they’re still officially considered members, just inactive ones. This includes dead members.
Throughout the book, you offer several ways the Oulipo has been defined. Is there a definition that’s more apt than others? Have you formulated your own response to the inevitable question of “So what is the Oulipo, exactly”?
I usually go with some variation of “a research group of writers and scientists whose collective subject of inquiry is the literary potential of mathematical structures.” Sometimes—okay, often—I replace “research group of writers and scientists” with “bunch of nerds.”
No one reads Wendy Walker’s The Secret Service (1992), a spellbinding and disorienting spy-novel/gothic fantasy (to narrow it down to two broad and non-exhaustive categories) that nearly defies description.
The premise of The Secret Service is simple, at least in the barest retelling: set in England in 19th century, a continental conspiracy is uncovered that if revealed will disgrace—and quite possibly ruin—the British royal family. The secret service of the title are called to unravel the plot, a task seemingly made easier by a recent discovery that enables agents to transform themselves into objects—in this case: a wine goblet, a bronze statue of Thisbe, and a rosebush—to infiltrate the conspirators’ ranks. As with all remarkable fiction, Walker’s plot at this, the simplest, point turns back upon itself, digresses, and passes into realms familiar to readers of Calvino, Poe, Borges, and Dickens.
The book’s flavor is perhaps best hinted at by lists; lists that tantalizingly allude to the infinite while always falling short even of the object they hope to describe. Henry Wessells writes:
The novel is filled with strange erudition, sensuous descriptive language, broken glass, crackpot science, gruesome technology, unexpected turns, and a succession of stories within stories…
And Douglas Messerli, who published the book in the now-defunct Sun & Moon Classics series, describes it in terms that remind one of a modern Metamorphoses:
Walker’s world is a world of mystery, castles, architectural wonders, secrets, changelings, doubles, madness, terrorism, and death—in short, as she herself prefers to characterize this work, she is writing in the tradition of Gothic fiction, horrible and terrifying in its revelations. If her writing style outshines even her inventiveness of story, these two work in tandem to create themes that for some may be even more overwhelming. For Walker’s world is also one of eternal change, constant alteration where humans and landscape morph into one another and, in so doing, transform experience into a series of encounters dangerous for those who prefer tranquil stasis.
Image: Cezanne, Still Life with Bottles
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No one reads Paul Carroll (1926–96). Carroll was a poet now best remembered for the writers he championed. He was an editor at Chicago Review and a founder of the Poetry Center of Chicago. When Chicago Review refused to continue publishing excerpts of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch in 1958, Carroll resigned along with fellow editor Irving Rosenthal and founded Big Table in order to promote Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and others. Kerouac came up with the name: Big Table occurred to him, Carroll recalled, when Kerouac found a note he had written himself: “Get a bigger table.” The first issue of the magazine was seized by the Post Office for containing obscenity in the locked-down ’50s.
Poet Paul Hoover told K. C. Clarke (as part of an appreciation of Carroll by those who knew him) that even as a tenured professor at UIC, where he founded the writers’ program, he was also driving a cab. “He was driving these people around, and they didn’t care about his subject, Pablo Neruda, so he stops the car and said, ‘Get the fuck out.’ That seemed to be the kind of guy he was.”
His wife, Maryrose, described their life in a 2004 interview [PDF}:
He had an ABSOLUTE passion for poetry.
When we lived in our loft, a factory building not too far from Lincoln Park, when he wasn’t teaching, he would go out on his bike and ride through the park, and make stops, to jot down notes about the weather, the trees, or a dead fish. When he came home the pieces would go into a first stew, and usually he would get up late at night, at 2:00, 3:00 o’clock in the morning, and he would be working again, on poetry. And whether these poems were published or not he kept on writing, rocking and rolling with the words.
"Song After Making Love" (published posthumously in 2008)
Sometimes I want to be a cloud
drifting like a barnacle goose or a galleon
into the winter home of God
The green of these trees
the grass green as oxygen
the green of my excited heart
Shadows of bird between the bones
blood feels sweet
as if moving in maple trees
a part of me is grass
I close my eyes
at the same time full
like a galaxy in daylight
Carroll was suggested to me as a subject by Thomas Sloan, Professor Emeritus in Art History at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His knowledge of lost and forgotten bits of history are rivaled by few people I know.
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I asked Dmitry Samarov — author of Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab — to post about Chicago writers. This is his first post. He even made a portrait of the author!
No one reads Willard Motley (1909–1965) but they certainly used to. He grew up in a middle-class African-American household in the then primarily-white neighborhood of Englewood in Chicago. The prominent painter Archibald Motley was his uncle, cousin, or brother (according to various sources).
He first gained notice when he submitted a short story to the Chicago Defender at the age of 13. This led to his being hired to write a children’s column under the pen-name “Bud Billiken” from 1922 to 1924. (“Bud Billiken” was later used for a South Side Chicago parade which continues to this day.)
Motley was a co-founder of Hull-House Magazine, which published some of his first adult writings.
I. THE STREET
This is the corner. Here is where the women stand at night. This is where the evangelists preach God on Sundays. Here is where knife-play has written a moment’s strange drama; where sweethearts have met; where drunks have tilted bottles; where shoppers have bargained; where men have come looking — for something… This is the humpty-dumpty neighborhood. Maxwell and Newberry…
Here is where the daytime pavement never gets a rest from the shuffle of feet. Where the night-time street lamps lean drunkenly and are an easy target for the youngsters’ rocks. Where garbage cans are pressed full and running over. Where the weary buildings kneel to the street and the cats fight their fights under the tall, knock-kneed legs of the pushcarts. This is the down-to-earth world, the bread and beans world, the tenement-bleak world of poverty and hunger. The world of skipped meals; of skimp pocketbooks; of nonexistent security — shadowed by the miserable little houses that Jane Addams knew. Maxwell and Newberry…
This is the street of noises, of odors, of colors. This is a small hub around which a little world revolves. The spokes shoot off into all countries. This is Jerusalem. The journey to Africa is only one block; from Africa to Mexico one block; from Mexico to Italy two blocks; from Italy to Greece three blocks…
This is the pavement. These are the streets. Here are the people…
Motley’s most popular novel, Knock on any Door, sold 47,000 copies in its first three weeks of release. Its hero Nick Romano famously said, “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.” The book was adapted into a 1949 film directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Humphrey Bogart.
Responding to criticism that he did not directly address race in his work, he said, “My race is the human race.”
Motley died of intestinal gangrene in Mexico City in 1965, poor and forgotten. His papers are held at the Chicago Public Library and Northern Illinois University.
Motley was suggested to me as a subject by Bill Savage, who owns a copy of Nelson Algren's Neon Wilderness inscribed by the author as “the poor man’s Willard Motley.”
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From Ed Park’s piece for the Harry Mathews symposium (he’s describing a 1975 Harper’s edition of Mathew’s early novels called The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium and Other Novels):
The heft of the book, its strange title in stolid green caps—the abundance implicit in the casual “other novels”!—and its enigmatic cover all attracted me, as did this statement on the back:For several years Harry Mathews has enjoyed a growing following among college students, artists, other poets and writers, and fans of the obscure who have never been able to buy his books.
It seemed a contradiction, an impossibility. Being a fan of the obscure was one thing—but being the follower of an author whose books you couldn’t even get? That was another level of perversity. And I was ready to go there.
Don’t miss the footnotes either.
I can’t locate even a simple bio for poor Hal Garrott, author of the children’s fantasies Snythergen (1923) and Squiffer (1924), both illustrated by the somewhat better-known Dugald Stewart Walker. (See illustrations for Snythergen here.)
Never was there a jollier little fellow - although little is scarcely the word - than this Snythergen, and never were there adventures better calculated to delight a child than the tale of how he grew first so very round and later so very tall that he could not remain at home any longer, but was obliged to live in the forest and to become a tree. In the forest lived Squeaky, the pig, and Sancho, the goldfinch, and the three became the best of friends. (publisher’s copy, via)
A tale for young people which is every bit as charming as Mrs. Garrott’s story of the boy-tree, Snythergen. Squiffer is a squirrel whose desire to become a boy sends him upon strange adventures. The characters of the tale include a Bear, a Candy Princess, the wicked Red-Fairy-Hot (with his three quick changes) and ever so many other delightful persons. (publisher’s copy, via)
[update: In the Heather Bright directed me to a PDF article with a mention of Hal Garrott in a list of patrons of Kilmarnock Books in St. Paul (along with Fitzgerald). The article focuses on writer-no-one-reads Thomas Alexander Boyd.]