BAMA PANEL IV: SURVIVAL OF THE DIMMEST?
The Alabama Panel 25 years ago this month was essentially a high-brow rumble: LangPo taking on Official Verse Culture.
Two heavyweights of LangPo, 53 year old USC Comparative Lit. professor Marjorie Perloff and 34 year old L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E editor Charles Bernstein took on U.K. poet Louis Simpson, 61, former Nation poetry editor and Black Mountain associated poet, Denise Levertov, 60, David Ignatow, 70, poet and poetry editor of The Nation, Harvard professor Helen Vendler, 51, and Iowa Workshop poet Gerald Stern, 59.
Perloff and Bernstein were on friendly turf, however. 35 year old Hank Lazer, the ‘Bama professor host, was in Bernstein’s camp, as was 30 year old Gregory Jay, punk ‘Bama assistant professor.
Charles Altieri, 41, professor at U. Washington and recent Fellow at Institute for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Palo Alto, ostensibly had a foot in each camp, but you could tell his heart was with Perloff and Bernstein. The match-up was actually 5-5, so LangPo should have counted itself fortunate.
Also at the table 25 years ago was the elder statesman, Kenneth Burke, 87, a coterie member of the original Modernists–winner of the annual Dial Magazine Award in 1928 (other winners of the Dial Award in the 1920s: T.S. Eliot in 1922 for ‘The Waste Land,’ Ezra Pound, WC Williams, E.E. Cummings, and Marianne Moore.) Burke, chums with figures such as Malcolm Cowley and Allen Tate, was an editor at The New Republic 1929-1944, a radical Marxist, and a symbolism expert–if such a thing is possible.
The poet Donald Hall had been invited and could not attend–submitting in writing for the conference his famous ‘McPoem’ critque of the Workshop culture.
We already looked at how Gerald Stern embarrassed Bernstein by asking him to ‘name names’ when Bernstein raised the issue at the 25 year old panel discussion of ‘poet policemen’ enforcing the dictates of ‘official verse culture’ and Bernstein only coming up with one name: T.S. Eliot.
Then we looked at Vendler asserting the crucial modernist division between timeless criticism and “abrasive” reviewing–with Simpson retorting this was nothing but a status quo gesture on Vendler’s part, with Vendler weakly replying she was fighting the status quo in working to make Wallace Stevens more appreciated. Then in Part III of this series, we saw how Levertov roared ‘you parochial fools are ignoring race/unprecedented crisis/human extinction.’
Levertov, taking a no-frills Leftist position, and Simpson, with his no-frills aesthetic of pre-interprative Vision, proved too much for the LangPo gang.
Levertov became incensed with professor Jay’s post-modern argument that human language and interpretation are at the heart of human experience: “Bullshit!” Levertov said. Levertov and Simpson (with Ignatow) argued for universal feeling as primary.
Levertov argued for universal access as the very nature of language; Perloff countered that a small group of people might find meaning in something else.
Louis Simpson came in for the kill, asking Perloff:
“Suppose you found some people who were using bad money and thought it was good money. Would you be mistaken to point out then it was all forged?”
The audience roared appreciatively with laughter.
Bernstein, with his training in analyitic philosophy, was shrewder, finally, than Perloff.
Rather than confront the dinosaur Levertorous head-on, the furry little Bernstith sniffed around and devoured her giant eggs:
Bernstein: “We’re not going to to resolve philosophical & theosophical, religious differences among us. Religious groups have these same disagreements. I think the problem I have is not so much understanding that people have a different veiwpoint than I have–believe me, I’ve been told that many times (laughter) and I accept that.”
Here’s the insidious nature of Bernstein’s Cambridge University training–he seeks disagreement as a happy result; he embraces difference as a positive quality in itself. Bernstein gives up on universals sought by pro and con argument. Now he continues:
“What I do find a problem is that we say ‘poets’ think this and ‘poets’ think that–because by doing that we tend to exclude the practices of other people in our society of divergence.”
What are these “practices of other people?” He doesn’t say. But we can imply that these “practices” are radically different and reconciliation is impossible. Now Bernstein goes on to make a stunning leap of logic:
“And I think it’s that practice that leads to the very deplorable situation that Denise Levertov raised: the exclusion of the many different types of communities and cultures from our multicultural diverse society, of which there is no encompassing center. My argument against a common voice is based on my idea that the idea of a common voice seems to me exclusion.”
Bernstein’s Orwellian thesis is that the One does not include the Many; the One is merely a subset of the Many. Bernstein rejects the universalizing social glue necessary for Levertov’s democratic commonwealth of social justice; Bernstein promotes inclusion while positing inclusion itself as exclusion(!). Multiculturalism interests Bernstein for its severing qualities–Bernstein wants to break but not build. Logically and politically, he is unsound, and later on in the discussion–after Vendler breaks from ‘official verse culture’ and goes over to Bernstein’s side (thus giving Langpo a numerical 6-4 victory) with her ‘poetry makes language opaque’ speech–Levertov strikes the following blow:
Bernstein: My poetry resists the tendencies within the culture as a whole. What poetry can do is make an intervention within our language practice in society.
Levertov: I disagree. Language is not your private property. Language has a common life.