MULTICULTURAL WRATH IN ALABAMA: LEVERTOV SCOLDS PANEL

BAMA PANEL III:  Indeed, Denise Levertov is increasingly appalled…

The third in a series of 5 articles on the 1984 University of Alabama Poetry Conference by THOMAS BRADY.


Denise Levertov

A perception of Wallace Stevens as participant in the “common life” was all Helen Vendler had in her defense against Louis Simpson’s charge that she (Helen Vendler) was a living embodiment of the staus quo.  Vendler’s “aim in life,” she said, was to “change the status quo,” and the example she produced in Alabama that morning was that she was on a life-long quest to find some way to convince people that tubby Wallace Stevens was not a wealthy, racist snob who wrote show-offy, goofball verse. (Good luck with that, professor Vendler.   You might want to check out William Logan’s review of the new ‘Selected Stevens’ in this month’s New Criterion.)

Charles Bernstein, with his back against the wall, finally…after a ‘Stern’ grilling…named… T.S Eliot.

Hendler Vendler…zonked by the poet Louis Simpson…attempted to save herself… with… Wallace Stevens.

Both Eliot and Stevens were students of the aesthetic philosopher George Santayana at Harvard.

Vendler was a full professor at Harvard.

Bernstein studied under Stanley Cavell at Harvard.

Denise Levertov, poetry editor for The Nation in the 1960s and Mother Jones in the 1970s, had heard enough.  She exploded.  She hit the ceiling.  She yawped.

“I’m getting increasingly appalled…”

Uh Oh…

“OUR DISCUSSION KEEPS GETTING MORE AND MORE PROVINCIAL, PAROCHIAL…”

A feeling of shame moved through the panelists…

“WE KEEP IGNORING…”

“The Crimson began to turn red…”

“THERE IS A WHOLE BODY OF LITERATURE…”

Sweat trickling down the faces of every professor in the room…

“VERY EXCITING LITERATURE…”

Panelists frozen in horror…

“DEVELOPING AND BEGINNING TO FLOURISH WILDLY AND WONDERFULLY…”

“Wildly and wonderfully?”  Denise, get this over with!  Kill us now!

“BLACK POETS…”

The panelists and the audience  (all white) were suddenly drained of color.

“AND CHICANO POETS.”

Damn!  Not Chicano poets, too!

(Maybe she said Chicago poets!  no…no…Chicano poets.  We’re cooked.)

Denise Levertov wasn’t finished.

The panelists didn’t move.

“All this is totally ignored and perhaps even more important…”

No one breathed.  Not even Louis Simpson, the WW II vet, batted an eyelash…

“we are talking away here…talking about prizes and naming names…”

Bernstein and Stern looked at the floor…Vendler began to chew on her lip…

“and all this is absolutely parochial irrelevancy and IGNORES THE FACT…”

The panelists, one by one, began to slowly hide under the table…

“THAT AS A SPECIES WE ARE STANDING ON THE VERY BRINK OF EXTINCTION…”

Vendler, under the table, drank a glass of water very fast…

“THAT WE LIVE IN A TIME OF UNPRECEDENTED CRISIS.”

Louis Simspon, WW II vet, is now weeping into Vendler’s shoes…

I MEAN…TALK ABOUT FIDDLING WHILE ROME BURNS!!

It brings the house down.  Furious applause.  Papers, books, flying everywhere.   Spontaneous suicides.

Alabama has never seen anything like this.

It’s unprecedented.

End of Part III.

Part IV will examine  everything else you’ve wanted to know about how American poetry got to be where it is but didn’t know how or what to ask.
STAY VERY FINELY TUNED…

3 Comments

  1. cowpattyhammer said,

    October 22, 2009 at 8:51 am

    1984.

    Prescient!

    And look how Stephen Burt ends up his latest boon-doggle called The New Thing. I mean, is there any hope here? Is anything moving on?

    It all sounds fine at first, and it’s well-written and sensible, but read it carefully and you’ll see it’s just more bluff defending a whole generation of academic poets who’ve lost there way inside the cloister, and simply can’t come out!

    “No poem becomes good just because it has a clear subject; no poem is better for lacking one. No poem is better just for being short, or long; for concentrating scrutiny on one thing, or divvying up jazzy salvos among several; for being extravagant, or for sounding restrained. I have described new poets whose books meet the standard that Yang and his “ancients” set. I am not sure which, if any, will seem in a decade as powerful as Debt or as Next Life. I am sure, though, that these poets repay attention; that some are still getting better; that their poems communicate fruitfully with one another, with the durable legacy of Williams, and with the rest of the literary history that they share.”

    “Repay attention?” [delete]

    “Getting better?” [delete]

    “Communicate fruitfully with one another?” [delete]

    “Durable legacy?” [delete]

    “The literary history that they share?” [delete]

    “I mean…talk about fiddling while Rome burns! “ — that’s what Lous Simpson said about exactly The Same Thing at BAMA way back in 1984!

    And honestly, Stephen Burt, who cares beside your friends, your colleagues and your students, and even then just to be safe or get a pass or entree to the perfect job or join the cocktail party circuit?

    Does anyone ever bother to ask if such human beings still speak at all, what’s more to each other? Or is that the point? No questions asked like Prufrock (what an irony that I should use that analogy to explain our poetry’s self-absorption and impotence!).

    Well, I’m not there yet myself, even at 70 — but then I don’t work in the business, have no job to protect or boss to please, or any CV to feather. On the other hand, I love poetry with all my heart and soul, and if I find one good poem it makes my day, or several. Nothing here at all, and if Stephen Burt tells me some of these poems have made his day, well, his day has become his discourse, and what he fabricates in his criticism has now become his meaning.

    And yes, you can defend that as a philosophical position, but I’m afraid I’m just not interested.

    Christopher Woodman

  2. thomasbrady said,

    October 22, 2009 at 11:21 am

    Stephen Burt is the critic who has no criticism.

    A creature of the Creative Writing Workshop age.

    Poetry criticism used to operate in the public square, in newspaper and magazine reviews. There was puffery, of course, as there’s always been, but there was some independence, at least.

    Then in the 1930s, John Crowe Ransom and friends made Criticism a ‘science’ and put it in the Academy.

    One little thing. The poets soon followed the critics into the Academy as Creative Writing Programs grew in number, and poets and critics became–close.

    The result: Stephen Burt. The Critic with no Criticism.

  3. cowpattyhammer said,

    October 23, 2009 at 6:00 am

    I read that “Critic with no Criticism” to mean with no insight, no commitment to drawing out the pith of the poem, to savoring it’s flavor, to forming an intimate relationship with it, to letting the poem bear fruit in the reader’s imagination — almost to the point it becomes a doppel ganger, and the Critic becomes a sort of poet.

    On the other hand, perhaps it’s not fair to judge Stephen Burt’s critical powers based on that New Thing essay in The Boston Review — he just doesn’t have any fully developed or mature poems to work on, they’re all so stunted. His judgement in selecting them for the essay in the first place, yes, that certainly could be questioned. I mean, why bother? What do you expect if that’s all you’ve to go on?

    Which is the whole nutshell, isn’t it, or nutcake? Choosing to base a whole new critical theory on poems that are so obviously undressed, as if the very lie were some Post-Critical ur-Virtue? To dare to describe the clothes they’re wearing as if the very absence made you Jacques Derrida? Perhaps Stephen Burt really doesn’t care who questions him at court, he’s got such strong credentials in higher tailoring circles. Perhaps he doesn’t care there was all that discussion about such literary-historical presdigitators with their hats and rabbits way back in 1984 at BAMA, or that there’s a popular new blog devoted to tracking just such shenanigans called Scarriet, though I’m pretty sure he’s here.

    We’re discussing one of Gary B. Fitzgerald’s poems on The Strange Case of GBF thread, and it’s as if a twin poem had crept in, shadowy, indecent, but with a kick and energy that inspires the original to get up and shimmy.

    What an image for criticism that is — and let’s go over to Dancing with the Stars to see what we can do with Percy Bysshe and Joan, and get them really going on the floor as well!

    Christopher