ONE MORE LOOK AT ALABAMA

“Stars fell on Alabama”   –Old song

As promised, here’s the Final Part 5 report on the Alabama ‘What Is Poetry?‘ conference which took place 25 years ago in October.  

What happened at that October 1984  conference, exactly? 

The old guard– Ignatow, Simpson, Levertov, Stern, and Vendler–won the battle, but lost the war.

The Language Poetry team, led by Charles Bernstein and Marjorie Perloff,  scored almost no rhetorical points, and were even humiliated several times in the final group panel discussion.

Charles Bernstein was asked to “name names” of “policemen-poets” running “official verse culture” and could only sheepishly come up with one: T.S. Eliot.  Denise Levertov, with political guns blazing, said Bernstein’s concern for “official verse culture” was parochial and small-minded.  Unable to specify what made her outsider position important or unique, Marjorie Perloff was painted into a corner by Louis Simpson.  At one point Vendler said, to applause, “If you look at the statistics of dissertations done and M.A. theses done all across the face of America today, you will find that overwhelmingly they are done in twentieth-century studies, and the past is in danger of being forgotten altogether by the English departments.”

However, just sharing the stage with the status quo helped Bernstein and Perloff.   In a major capitulation to the barbarians, Helen Vendler conceded a huge point to Bernstein, explicitly agreeing with him that poetry makes language “opaque” and “problematic.” 

Well.

Poetry does not make language “problematic.” 

Poetry does the reverse; poetry overcomes the “problematic” aspect of language—this is why it is poetry! 

But don’t tell that to Vendler or Bernstein, champions of Art’s for Art’s Sake and Language Poetry, respectively.  

Art for Art’s Sake and Language Poetry would seem to be miles apart, but they’re not, actually.  

Both schools are more concerned with “How poetry tells us” than “What poetry tells us.” 

Vendler’s modernism really has little trouble fitting into Bernstein’s post-modernism.  

Erudition for its own sake will suffer from pedantry. 

But even worse than the old-fashioned pedantry—which once characterized the absent-minded English professor of old–is the erudition which attaches itself to a program, to a theoretical framework.  Free and open inquiry may thrive in a pedantic morass, but it never thrives when ideology stacks the deck.  Ideology turns erudition into a monster.

No one can accuse Vendler of being ideological—and this is precisely why her surrender to Bernstein is so harmful.  She did not surrender to his ideology, per se.  She generously and unconsciously abetted post-modernism because she found it intellectually pleasing to find how easily her modernism fit into Bernstein’s post-modernism.

Modernism decided to make poetry “problematic” or “difficult” (T.S. Eliot first ascribed the term “difficult” to modern poetry) in response to all sorts of issues, which, looking back, seem manufactured in light of a certain pessimism bearing down on the age, a heady manifesto-ism in general, and Eliot’s intuitive push towards the erudite and learned.  It was natural for this journey down “Problematic Lane” to lead from the opaque coyness of Wallace Stevens to the utter madness of LANGUAGE poetry.  

Bernstein’s intellectual legacy traces through Stanley Cavell, who was Bernstein’s mentor at Harvard, to J.L. Austin, a member of British Intelligence, who was Cavell’s Harvard professor.

Austin was a Moral Philosopher at Oxford who specialized in language, coining the term “speech acts” to describe speech as action–as opposed to speech as a mere passive agent of description.  Already we can see that—for this school of analytic philosophy—there is no speech which is not opaque and problematic—all speech is shot through with motive and desire, not just poetry.  Vendler, therefore, by conceding that poetry’s role was to “problematize language” was coming over to Bernstein’s turf and surrendering to him without a fight.

‘French theory’ did not only come from France.  It came from Oxford and Cambridge universities.  It came from Bloomsbury. (See G.E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles.)  Modernism and post-modernism have the same parent and are the same age.  Helen Vendler and Charles Bernstein are puppies of the same litter.

LANGPO SLAYS OFFICIAL VERSE CULTURE AS VENDLER GOES OVER TO BERNSTEIN

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.

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…

‘BAMA CONFERENCE, PART II: HELEN VENDLER, LOUIS SIMPSON

BAMA PANEL II:  Foetry covered up in leaves, Vendler style.

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


..Helen Vendler,…………Louis Simpson,…….Simpson, Vendler and Bernstein

There were more fireworks at Hank Lazer’s 1984 Tuscaloosa Conference.

The distinguished poet Louis Simpson, steely, feet-on-the-ground, World War Two veteran, rebuked panelist Helen Vendler’s attempt to take the high road above the foetic mire.

Simpson to Vendler: “The status quo. If the establishment ever spoke, it would say exactly, I’m sorry, what you just said.”

What did Vendler say to elicit this response?

Vendler was obviously taken aback by Simpson’s remark.   She had just addressed what she termed the panel’s “ill feelings” (especially those of Bernstein’s) with a long speech.

Simpson’s reply must have felt like a slap in the face.

The distinguished poet Louis Simpson was like knight royal at the conference; he was the only male U.K. member, rather elderly, and he was also the best poet there.

In her speech, Vendler, the plumpish bird of Keats/Stevens plumage, played her ‘Tenured Queen of the Criticism Priesthood’ card, obviously an attempt to 1) restore order to the proceedings, 2) give dignity to the proceedings, 3) soothe hurt feelings as a mother might and 4) impress everyone.

Simpson’s remark was so wounding that all Helen of Harvard could make in the way of reply was that she had worked  hard all her life to make people realize Wallace Stevens was no snob, but a real man, and…and…if that wasn’t using the High Road of Criticism to challenge the status quo, then, what was?

Simpson, silent and unmoved, must have thought to himself, ‘Wallace Stevens?  Is that all you’ve got?’

All Bernstein had was T.S. Eliot.

Now all Vendler had was Wallace Stevens.

O O O O that Official Verse Culture-

It’s so elegant

So intelligent

 Vendler began her speech by juxtaposing the practice of high and beautiful Criticism with the practice of low and necessary Reviewing.

Contemporary reviewing, like the game of love, was bound to make people unhappy; rejected by a lover because you are not a beautiful blonde, rejected by a tenure committee because you are not Helen Vendler,  rejected by a prize committee because you are not Jorie Graham, are just parts of life and it’s best not to nurse grudges and throw stones at tenure committees and call them old fogies because, dear Charles, you just have to be patient, OK, sweetie?  What really matters is how we feel about the dead, with all personal jealousies and animosties removed, time and death fostering a love of what is true.

Foetry covered up in leaves, Vendler style.

“When we are all safely dead…”

“Temporary abrasiveness between prize committees & reviewers and the poets they’re judging or giving prizes to shouldn’t be confused with differences between poetry & criticism.”

Ah, but Helen, this sort of abrasiveness isn’t temporary.

It lasts forever.

One can hear the anger even in the playing of that blue guitar.

Vendler: “Milton cannot feel bad that Dr. Johnson didn’t think well of his poem, ‘Lycidas.'”

Stern: “He’s furious.”

End of Part II.

Part III will deal with multicultural wrath in Alabama.
Sound good?
STAY EVEN MORE TUNED…

25 YEARS ON: FOETICS DOMINATES 1984 ALABAMA POETRY CONFERENCE

BAMA PANEL I:  Charles Bernstein does NOT name the ‘Official Poetry Policemen.’

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


Charles Bernstein, Gerald Stern, and T.S.Eliot.

Gerald Stern: “Names…of the policemen.”

If this October 20, 1984 panel discussion had taken place in London or Paris, or one of America’s major universities, it might have struck a mythic chord in American Letters.  If poetry mattered more to the American public, we might still be discussing the poetry session which took place 25 years ago this month.

Helen Vendler, Marjorie Perloff, Charles Bernstein, Denise Levertov, Kenneth Burke, Louis Simpson, David Ignatow and Gerald Stern put on a show in sleepy Tuscaloosa, as post-modernism faced off against modernism in a throat-ripping dog fight

Modern poetry’s factions exploded in the flesh, as po-biz insiders erupted in a spontaneous public quarrel.

The more dignified members of the panel probably regret their trip to U. Alabama in those controversial days of the 1980s culture wars.   I’m guessing most of the participants would prefer this conference be forgotten, but we at Scarriet would hate to miss an opportunity  to see big players like Helen (of Coy) Vendler and (Prince) Charles Bernstein naked.

We want to thank Annie Finch for finding the transcript of the panel discussion–we would have missed it otherwise.

Scarriet will do a series of posts on the ‘Bama Panel, as we observe its 25th anniversary.  There’s too much great stuff here for just one post.

So here we are back in 1984.  When asked a bland question by the conference host:

“What do you perceive the function of poetry to be, Charles?”

Bernstein, the unemployed ex-editor of the magazine, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E,  quickly got himself in a foetic tangle:

“[it] has to do with audiences, distribution, jobs, professional networks, things like that, which I think we tend to underrate.  It seems interesting to me that professional academic poets are making this particular issue apparent in this context…”

“I think it’s unfair not to realize that it’s actually poets who are the policemen of official verse culture in the United States.  And so from the perspective of a poet outside the academy and from the perspective of many people that I know who are not associated with academics, cannot get teaching jobs…”

Iowa Poetry Workshop teacher and poet Gerald Stern broke in:

“I don’t think you’re right, Charles. Who? What poets are the policemen? Would you like to name some poets who are the policemen?”

This was the defining moment of Bernstein’s career.  Had Bernstein “named names,” backing up his claim that ‘policemen poets’ were oppressively enforcing ‘official verse culture,’ he might never have found a job in academia.

Bernstein replied, “Yeah, I’ll give you a group, I’ll give you a group.”

Stern was a bulldog.  He would not let the matter drop.

Names…of the policemen.”

Bernstein:  I’ll give you a group.  You want me to?  No, I’m not going to, I’m going to give you institutional groups, I’m going to say those poets, those poets who…

Stern: I’ve got the names of thirty-seven hard, fast Communists in the State Department…McCarthy never named one…

Hank Lazer, ‘Bama host, and friend of Bernstein, attempted to smooth things over by leading the discussion back to the ‘function of poetry’ question.  Lazer must have been thinking: ‘My conference is going to destroy the career of my friend!’

But Stern wouldn’t quit: “Would you tell me who the policemen are, please, Charles?  Would you give me a list of names?”

Bernstein answered foetically: “Yeah, I’m talking about those poets who are involved in the award networks, the creative writing programs, and the major reviews.”

Charles Bernstein was explicitly talking foetry 20 years before Cordle and Foetry.com.

The only difference between Cordle and Bernstein was Bernstein was not naming names–and not naming names was, to the poet Gerald Stern, an even worse McCarthyist offense.

Stern had won the Lamont Poetry Selection 7 years prior, when Stern was 52: judges Alan Dugan, Phil Levine, and Charles Wright.  Doors had obviously opened for Stern since then, leading to his job at Iowa, and his invitation to this conference.

Did Stern think Bernstein was going to name Dugan, Levine, and Wright?  Who did Stern think Bernstein was going to name?   Who did Bernstein have in mind back there in 1984?

In the end, after more McCarthyism talk from Stern, Bernstein saved his career and meekly mentioned one poet, a dead one:

T.S. Eliot.

Bernstein used another dead poet to save himself:

“I would give you as a central instance the person that William Carlos Williams called the great disaster for our letters, T.S. Eliot…”

Bernstein made a non-answer.

Eliot’s “officalizing role” as a poet is a truism.

Everyone knows Williams and Eliot shared many mutual friends, including Pound.   Williams and Eliot both gained credentials by their accentuated differences: Williams’  obscure career was made to seem more ‘popularly American,’ while Eliot was assured high-brow points in the comparison to the Jersey scribbler.  The whole matter is the very opposite of the played-out platitude in the po-biz press.  Rather than shedding crocodile tears for Williams, was Bernstein instead playing on the opposition between revolutionary secular Jew and conservative Christian?  This is more likely.

To the Eliot v. Willams charade,  Ignatow said, “You’re right there.”

Bernstein: “Thank you.”

Indeed.

End of Part I.

Part II will examine Helen Vendler’s role in the same 1984 panel.
STAY TUNED…