Tuesday, May 26, 2009
My last post, really, on the Battle of the Bards
Padel won the vote nine days ago. But in a statement tonight she said: "I genuinely believe that I did nothing intentional that led to Derek Walcott's withdrawal from the election. I wish he had not pulled out. I did not engage in a smear campaign against him, but, as a result of student concern, I naively--and with hindsight unwisely--passed on to two journalists, whom I believed to be covering the whole election responsibly, information that was already in the public domain."In subsequent remarks made earlier today at the Hay Festival, Padel suggested she may have been the victim of a Machiavellian conspiracy. She was meanwhile "trailed by security guards, a measure usually reserved for ex-presidents and pop stars. An event that she chaired this afternoon--a conversation with Emma Darwin, on the latter's latest novel--was monitored by four stewards, a press officer and two guards." I find the Praetorian Guard routine a little weird. What I find even weirder is the idea of a poet having a campaign manager for the Oxford post.
She said she had acted in "good faith" and would have been "happy to lose to Derek, but I can see that people might interpret my actions otherwise. I wish to do what is best for the university and I understand that opinion there is divided. I therefore resign from the chair of poetry."
Monday, May 18, 2009
Last July, just minutes after a branch of Madame Tussaud's opened in the German capital, a 41-year-old former policeman leaped over the table at which [Adolf] Hitler was sitting. He shouted "No more war!" and beheaded the doll by twisting its beeswax head from its fiberglass body. The left hand of the figure, worth around $274,000 in total, also broke off.And there's this:
Police briefly detained the man, known only as Frank L., on suspicion of damaging property and causing injury--he lightly wounded one of the two security guards who tried to stop him--and he was eventually fined $2,423. The ex-policeman said he found it inappropriate to display an exhibit showing the Nazi leader only some 500 meters from Berlin’s Holocaust memorial.
Someone has beheaded a statue of President James Garfield that was installed last week at an Ohio college. Hiram College spokesman Shawn Brown says the vandalism was discovered Friday morning, just a day after the sandstone statue was dedicated on the campus in Hiram, 30 miles southeast of Cleveland. Brown says the college is hoping the head will be recovered so the 95-year-old statue can be restored, but police have no leads in their investigation.Okay, one is a political statement (a misguided one, in my opinion), and the other sounds like a frat-boy prank (unless it was a principled shot at the Crédit Mobilier scandal). Still, the human brain, if it happens to be mine, struggles to draw some poetic lesson from these distant decapitations. And let's not omit a third example, which took place back in 1969, when Abbey Road was released in the United States. Capitol put up a promotional billboard in Los Angeles, and soon after Paul McCartney's head went missing. I like the photo above for its washed-out quality and Polaroid pigments; I relish the sunlight on the scrubby vegetation and the date in the right margin. If I'm remembering correctly, Macca's head turned up some teenager's bedroom. Garfield's is still missing. Mine, whose innards resemble a perpetually agitated snow globe, is still attached.
Friday, May 15, 2009
I was never your devoted lover. It was gossip,If Walsh is Padel's ex-lover, that doesn't bar him from speaking up on her behalf. But a little more transparency might be welcome--perhaps a heart-shaped dingbat in the margin of his column. Meanwhile, he has backpedaled just a bit from his earlier assault on Walcott. "I'm sorry he's withdrawn," Walsh told the Evening Standard. "I just thought it was worth bringing up that, while he is a brilliant poet, his attitudes towards teaching poetry to young people--with a relationship that was overly close--were wrong. It was a moral rush of blood to the head."
That. All wrong, I am the Amur leopard no
One knows about, the thirty-fifth; each eye
An emerald. I'm passing by Quo
Vadis, St Anne's Court and Sunset Strip
On a summer evening trembling--water muscle
Breaking on the knife--
Edge of a dam--with promises of headlong
Encounters that might change a life.
To change the subject, at least for a few minutes: I just read a fascinating Frieze piece by Jace Clayton in defense of Auto-Tune. I'll let the author explain what he's talking about:
The most important piece of musical equipment of the last 10 years is not an instrument or a physical object. It's called Auto-Tune and is used on roughly 90 per cent of all pop songs. It is what's known as a 'plug-in,' a specialized piece of software made to be inserted into other, bigger pieces of audio software. Auto-Tune bends off-key notes into pitch perfection.Of course I knew about the existence of Auto-Tune, and that it was used even by artists with quasi-perfect pitch (check out this recent dust-up between Billy Joel and the pugnacious Ed Champion, who needled the singer for touching up a performance of the national anthem). But I didn't realize how pervasive it was. And yes, off the top of my head, I would have considered it a crutch--a crude cosmetic for vocal blemishes. Clayton argues that in the hands of its most skilled practitioners, Auto-Tune is simply one more expansion of the palette. The human voice is not at war with this vaguely robotic technology. It's "more like glossy coexistence, a strange new dance of give-and-take," with the performer and the algorithm following each other's lead.
I was immediately reminded of the ancient prejudice against microphones, which were also once regarded as a form of cheating. As Gary Giddins pointed out in the first volume of his massive Bing Crosby biography:
According to an old theatrical shibboleth, an entertainer who could not project to the balcony's last row was not ready for the big time; Jolson exemplified the leather-lunged belter of songs. With the arrival of the microphone--and the instant exit of the preposterous megaphone--a new and more intimate kind of singing for larger audiences was made possible. Technology changed music. Ironically, mechanics led to a more human and honest transaction between singers and their listeners.For me, the analogy holds until the last sentence. Which is to say that the microphone allowed greater intimacy between the audience and the singer, whose very intake of breath was now part of the performance. Whereas Auto-Tune still strikes me as distancing device, with the performer's humanity appearing in galvanizing glimpses. But Clayton makes the opposite argument:
Rather than novelty or some warped mimetic response to computers, Auto-Tune is a contemporary strategy for intimacy with the digital. As such, it becomes quite humanizing. Auto-Tune operates as a duet between the electronics and the personal. A reconciliation with technology. This development was sparked by a sexagenarian pop star [i.e., Cher] and spread like wildfire across genre, language, and geography. We live in a world saturated by electronics and we're finding ways to make that situation sing.I would say more, but I can't be hanging around much longer in my striped bathrobe (the blogger's equivalent of a gray flannel suit, and yes, autographed 8X10 glossies are available on request). But if you're following the Auto-Tune debate, you should also check out the smart, quirky Artificating blog. There you can download one of the freakier products discussed in Clayton's article: DJ Champion's "Baako," where a crying baby is fed through the wicked plug-in and sounds like a set of extraterrestrial bagpipes.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Walcott: the last word (from me, anyway)
Laborie, Choiseul, Vieuxfort, Dennery,But Als also notes the push-and-pull aspect of Walcott's personality, which made me glad I wasn't on the long drive to Soufrière:
from these sun-bleached villages
where the church bell caves in the sides
of one grey-scurfed shack that is shuttered
with warped boards, with rust,
with crabs crawling under the house-shadow
where the children played house;
a net rotting among cans, the sea-net
of sunlight trolling the shallows
catching nothing all afternoon.
After what seemed like many hours, we passed the tiny town of Anse la Raye and reached the shack where Walcott wanted to stop. The ride had been awkward, full of long silences. When Walcott spoke, he was brusque but never exactly rude: he has a British penchant for distancing through politeness, and for teasing as a means of expressing hurt, anger, and resentment. There is something unforgiving in his person that is reflected in the poems. [Seamus] Heaney writes that what he loves about Walcott's poems is "the writerly fearlessness... the readiness to lift the baton and tune the big orchestra--and there's always just that hint of a possibility that if things get out of hand the baton could turn into a nightstick."This took me straight back to my personal exposure to the poet. As I already noted on this blog, I signed up for one of his seminars at Columbia in 1983. Back then he talked a great deal about diction, especially in verse drama: he would hand out an example and we would take its rhetorical pulse as it downshifted from top-hatted formality to curt colloquialism and back again. Fascinating stuff (and very germane to Walcott's own work). He jetted down from Boston once a week, a glamorous figure, and since I usually kept my mouth shut in class, I had little direction interaction with him. But one day, he was trying to recall the opening lines of Auden's "In Praise of Limestone." By coincidence I had just been reading that very poem, and was quick to pipe up with the missing words: "If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones, / Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly / Because it dissolves in water." Perhaps I looked pleased at this minor feat of memory. In any case, Walcott glanced at me for a moment and said, "Oh, you're one of those guys who studies the index of first lines at the back of the book." Generous, no? Not to worry, I survived and thrived. And I could have done far worse, to judge from this vignette in the Hilton Als piece, in which Walcott, accompanied by Als and his companion Sigrid, maintains quality control at a St. Lucia restaurant:
We sat down. On the menu there was a dish called "Derek Walcott Acra"--a salt fish cake with Creole sauce served with sweet-potato fries.I'll have one Derek Walcott special, please. With shafafa on the side.
"Hello, Mr. Walcott," the waitress said, approaching. She was young and pretty and thin, and was dressed in a skimpy piece of madras cloth. She reminded me of Walcott’s Helen. Walcott turned away from her, mock dismissive.
"I'm not speaking to you, you know," he said.
"Oh! Mr. Walcott! Why?" She seemed legitimately concerned.
"Dodo!" Sigrid said, chuckling, toying with her camera.
"You're rude to me, you know," Walcott said to the young girl, who did not laugh. "You deserve lash! You want lash!"
Walcott pulled the girl over his knee and began to spank her. The girl squealed. Now she was laughing. Her fear had turned to relief.
Walcott let the girl up. "Now you're rude no more, huh?"
"Oh, Dodo!" Sigrid said, laughing, before turning her attention to what she and Walcott could and should not eat, given their diet.
ADDENDUM: After posting the above, I was alerted to a 2004 Poetry Daily essay by David Orr, which addresses the broader question of why we forgive some poets their day-to-day sins and apply the bastinado to others who are surely no better. Here's the pungent opening salvo:
In response to the question, "Can a bad man be a good poet?" there are only two things to be said: "Yes" and "obviously." In part, that's because the poetry world sets the bar fairly low for "badness"--when we say a poet was a "bad man," we don't mean that he was a shotgun-toting, baby-kicking monster; we mean that he was unpleasant, disturbed, or a jerk. And considering that poetry's history is thick with unpleasant, disturbed jerks, the question would seem to answer itself.I should note that Derek Walcott is not on trial in Orr's article. Look for the usual suspects, cited in the excerpt above: Larkin, Lowell, Pound. Still, Orr's arguments are completely relevant, and he makes an often overlooked point--we're more shocked by the bad behavior of poets whose work has cast over the reader at least an elementary spell of self-identification.
Still, smart readers continue to bemoan the disgraceful behavior of poets, and to ask how it possibly can be reconciled with their art. In a recent New York Times review of Philip Larkin's Collected Poems, for example, Stephen Metcalf tells us that "poets are expected to be more than first-rate talents" and then asks, "How do we square this with Larkin, with his bitterness, his commitment to masturbatory solitude and his slide into gross political reaction?" In raising this question, Metcalf, a Larkin fan, is simply acceding to critical reality--if you're going to review a Larkin book, you're going to do a lot of sighing over the poet's racial slurs, spiteful quips, and dirty magazines. But why is that? Why do we feel the need to judge a Larkin or a Lowell or a Pound--or at least to judge them morally? What do we mean by "bad," anyway? And why continue to ask a question about poetic morality whose answer--"Yes, obviously"--has been proven over and over and over again, century after century, from Blake to Shelley to Rimbaud to Frost?
Monday, May 11, 2009
Walcott: the plot thickens
JM: As the author of that sick defense (I'll omit the quotation marks around both words), I thought I would put in my two cents here. In the very same blog post you quote, I said that if Walcott had truly blackmailed students into sleeping with him, he should have been kicked to the curb back in the 1980s. What to do about his rotten behavior twenty or thirty years after the fact is a little more complicated. As for admiration turning into intimacy, I wasn't blaming his female students (although I can see why it might have appeared that way). I was speaking more generally about Walcott coveting Robert Lowell's tie, or me coveting Richard Ford's fork. I don't in any way endorse sexual harassment. I consider it a great relief that the fuzzy rules governing such conduct, which allowed Walcott a free pass twenty-five years ago, have gotten much tighter.I have no reason to doubt Abramson's claim that he's up to his neck in great men. I would also suggest that he's confusing different sorts of greatness. We don't admire (or even worship) poets for their strength of character, but for their demonic negotiation of language and experience--which, as Abramson concedes, is often at odds with their scuzzy day-to-day behavior. That said, I did come around to his point of view. In other words, I think that Walcott's history of sexual harassment does make him a less-than-attractive candidate for the professorship.
SA: I'm glad you mentioned Walcott deserving the employment axe in the 1980s, though in saying "to be fair, he was hardly the only poet to take advantage of his harem of youthful admirers," I'm not sure I see the relevance--it's not about fairness to Walcott, but the students, and every single professor who "took advantage of his harem" needed to be axed, period. If Walcott had been the only one caught, then Walcott should have gone, and that would have been fair. If twenty professors had been caught, then twenty should have been axed, and that would have been fair. Each act would have an inherent fairness not diminished by any failure to root out additional violators.
Had Walcott apologized publicly and amended his behavior, twenty or thirty years might change this story somewhat. But there's been no apology, and no particular reason to think the behavior's been amended, either, so Walcott is (it seems to me) as deserving of censure now as ever--he's done nothing to heal the wounds he caused or to rehabilitate himself.
As for Lowell and Ford, my feeling is that poets are just people--typically more flawed than most, and less giving of themselves than most (because poetry engenders its own sort of egotism), and therefore hardly worthy of any sort of blind admiration. I'm certain I've met several hundred men in my life who are greater men than Walcott, and none of them were famous.
JM: As for my comment about the long, pathetic practice of American poets sleeping with their students--I wasn't trying exonerate Walcott. I was only suggesting that the laxity applied to his case in the 1980s may have stemmed in part from the sense that this was going on all over. (And yes, from the fact that he was a celebrated black poet and likely Nobel laureate.)
If Walcott had apologized or made some public show of contrition, that indeed would have changed matters (somewhat, anyway). Since he didn't--and since he was still making like a lounge lizard as recently as 1998--I should amend my earlier blog post and concede that he's probably not the right guy for the Oxford job. To hire him would send a bad, destructive message. Meanwhile, here's another question: in fifty years, would you rather read the great poetry of an asshole or the capable poetry of a really good person? The answer sticks in my craw. It doesn't persuade me that Walcott should get the Oxford professorship.
Finally, Lowell's tie and Ford's fork. I don't consider poets to be better or less fallible than other people. There are many shining examples of cruel, selfish, and manipulative poets. But we could probably find similar percentages among garbage men and paleontologists. So, no blind admiration, just a human (and humorous) itch to borrow a little magic from your hero. That's why I took Ford's fork (although he's not my hero) and that's why I considered stealing a plum from the tree in front of Keats' house in Hampstead (although it wasn't the original tree).
Meanwhile, according to the Times Online, Walcott's history as a "sex pest" is now being anonymously circulated to potential voters:
The race to win poetry's most prestigious academic post has turned dirty after Oxford academics were anonymously sent a lurid dossier accusing Derek Walcott, the front runner and Nobel laureate, of being a sex pest. The package was circulated last week to staff and graduates eligible to vote in next Saturday's election for the Oxford professorship of poetry, as well as to the offices of Cherwell, a student newspaper.Straight out of The Human Stain, isn't it? Further down, the Times article includes some extra detail about the anonymous dossier:
About 50-100 electors, including dons and heads of colleges, have been sent the Walcott dossier, posted from London. The only clue to the sender’s identity came in a note with Cherwell’s package. It was signed "Sandra and Jane."The Daily Mail quotes Hermione Lee, who has been one of Walcott's most prominent supporters (and is also a professor at Oxford). She has a starchy reaction to the poison-pen maneuvering behind the dossier ("an unpleasant way of carrying on") and goes on to reiterate many of the same arguments I initially made. "Should great poets who behave badly be locked away from social interaction?" she asks. "We are acting as purveyors of poetry, not of chastity." Addressing Cherwell, the eminent biographer of Edith Wharton (certainly not chaste) and Philip Roth (even less so) also compared Walcott to some of his randy predecessors: "You might ask yourself as a student body whether you wanted Byron or Shelley as a professor of poetry, neither of whom had personal lives free from criticism."
The envelopes contain photocopied pages from an obscure academic work, The Lecherous Professor, which detail Walcott's attempts to lure the Harvard student into bed.
UPDATE: According to the Guardian, Walcott has withdrawn from the race. "I am disappointed that such low tactics have been used in this election and I do not want to get into a race for a post where it causes embarrassment to those who have chosen to support me for the role or to myself," he told the Evening Standard. "I already have a great many work commitments and while I was happy to be put forward for the post, if it has degenerated into a low and degrading attempt at character assassination, I do not want to be part of it."
Thursday, May 07, 2009
"Blumine" and Budweiser
Gradually the entire orchestra trickled onstage, followed by the conductor in a black shirt and dark slacks. Without much preamble, Gilbert cued the A-natural drone that begins the symphony--nearly a minute of pure suspension, with the reeds, brass, and flutes passing around one of those two-note cuckoo calls that should sound like nature kitsch but never do. The trumpets played their fanfare offstage, possibly from a room with a soda machine in it (or so I like to imagine), then quietly snuck into their seats. And off we went. Two or three times I thought the string section--which includes the conductor's mother, Yoke Takebe--was shouted down by rest of the ensemble. I heard a single fluffed note during a brass entrance. Otherwise the performance was a treat, imbued with the sort of ardent precision that would have made Mahler faint with pleasure. It certainly put to shame the agreeable shambles he described in an 1894 letter to Arnold Berliner, when he conducted the piece in Weimar:
Performance, after utterly inadequate rehearsal, extremely shoddy. Orchestra retrospectively extremely satisfied with symphony as result of barrel of free beer, also their affections won by my style of conducting. My brother was there--extremely satisfied with demi-failure--myself ditto with semi-success!I won't go through the performance bar by bar (or beer by beer). I will note Gilbert's supple handling of the third movement, especially that hushed passage smack in the middle, which David Hurwitz (in The Mahler Symphonies: An Owner's Manual) calls "one of those Mahlerian oases of peace, made all the more gripping by appearing in such lurid surroundings." That sounds about right. The effect is like emerging into a clearing after a long trudge through the woods, with diffuse sunlight everywhere and no motion of any kind. So beautiful, and so brief--after a couple of minutes, it's back into the rough, with Frère Jacques and a klezmer band ringing in your ears.
After the intermission, the orchestra played "Blumine," an eight-minute-long pastoral that was originally the second movement of the symphony we had just heard. It's Mahler in a mellow mood, with none of the manic alternation that is his greatest virtue and intermittent vice. What I wanted to dwell on, though, is the fact that after struggling for seven years to incorporate this palate-cleanser into the symphony, he dropped it entirely in 1896. At that point "Blumine" vanished. It didn't resurface until 1959, when the manuscript went up for sale at Sotheby's. It was published as a freestanding piece in 1968, and is occasionally, blasphemously inserted back into the symphony by a renegade conductor. The general feeling is that it extended the bucolic vibe of the first movement for too long, and thereby violated the overall trajectory of the symphony. In other words, its exclusion was logical, even inevitable.
Critics (myself included) love to talk about the inevitability of a work of art. For the most part, that is absolute crap. Art is created by fickle, fallible human beings, who may well make the most momentous decisions about their work on a bad hair day. Mahler is a great example, since he was constantly shuffling movements around, thinning and thickening his orchestrations, trying to turn demi-failure into semi-success. Sure, there is such a thing as formal perfection, to which we listeners respond with a kind of cooing satisfaction. But plenty of the biggest thrills--the moments that give you goosebumps and palpitations and the distinct, almost perverse sense that you are peering directly into another person's consciousness--come when the artist tosses logic out the window. "A work of art is never finished, only abandoned," said Paul Valéry (or Edgar Degas or Leonardo Da Vinci, depending on which unreliable website you consult). I'm hoping it was Da Vinci, since he seemed allergic to finishing anything, including a meal. But it's correct in any case. The only inevitability is that sooner or later, the artist will cry uncle and resolve to do better next time.
Wednesday, May 06, 2009
NBCC Reads: Works in Translation
Then there was that Everest of French letters, whose vertiginous heights and winding descents have bested many a translator: Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Daniel Dyer saw the multi-volume monster as an absolute summit. "I am in my sixties," he said, "and recovering from prostate cancer surgery. I decided it was, well… time. I read 100 pages a day, every day, until I finished the volumes. I think these are the greatest literary works ever written by a human being. I've not read everything, of course--not even everything that's celebrated. But I cannot imagine anything better."Please do take a look at the entire omnium gatherum here. And stop by Critical Mass over the next month for the dessert course.
Michael Sims agreed, praising the magic-lantern quality of Proust's imagery and his prodigal, preening cast of characters. "Most of the time," he concedes, "I find the characters maddening--petty, self-absorbed, posturing, judgmental, although of course often hilarious and sometimes tragic. But I don't read for the characters. I read, I think, for the cinematography. Has there ever been such loving attention to the sensualities of the moment? 'It was on the Méséglise way that I first noticed the round shadow that apple trees make on the sunny earth and those silks of impalpable gold which the sunset weaves obliquely under the leaves, and which I saw my father interrupt with his stick without deflecting them.' I quote this almost random selection (from the Lydia Davis translation) as an example of the kind of snapshot imagery that Proust seems to casually exhale without thinking: the glimpse immortalized. So generous is his encyclopedic curiosity, so Olympian his empathy, that even passing shadows have personality."
Friday, May 01, 2009
CJR: What else draws you to these voiceless subjects, whom you call "rejectionists" in your introduction?You can read the rest here.
Wright: Well, here’s a little personal narrative that I didn’t put into the introduction. In a nutshell: when I was thirteen, I was insanely obsessed with Eldridge Cleaver's Soul On Ice. This was in rural Ohio, where I wanted to lead a Black Panther revolution. I ran away, and was sent to a home for troubled kids. That all resolved itself, years ago, but I still have a real affection for people struggling with some ridiculous obsession. I want to be a voice for the voiceless--you know, that noble thing--but I also have a personal affinity for rejectionists.
CJR: One great strength of the book is that you can write about Wingnut and his comical cadre without making fun of them.
Wright: I’m glad that comes across. I’m trying to reject the whole hipster irony culture. You know the idea: you leave New York or Los Angeles (two places where I’ve spent most of my adult life), and then you find idiots in the hinterlands, and show what buffoons they are. I suppose that because I actually am from the hinterlands, I dislike that kind of journalism.