Wednesday, March 26, 2008

He did the police in different voices

Like a number of folks I've been in touch with lately, I've been reading Al Filreis's fascinating new book, Counter-Revolution of the Word: the Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945-1960, which shows that there was what we now call a right wing conspiracy against modernist poetry. I've been interested in this for years because I was the last man standing at the old Partisan Review, which very sadly rotated through the political extremes that, in the end, helped kill it off (I'm proud to say that the poetry section which I edited was independent of all such crud during my tenure and that of Rosanna Warren, and we did our best to uphold the high standards established during that mag's heyday; and don't be smirking at PR where folks like Barbara Guest and Delmore Schwartz preceded me as Poetry Ed.) Then, too, during my time as curator of poetry at Harvard, I unearthed quite a lot of odd data about the likes of Robert Hillyer, who preceded Jorie Graham and Seamus Heaney in the post of Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory there, but is more famous for (in his role as president of the Conservative Poetry Society of America and during the Bollingen Prize controversy) calling the recognition of Pound's poems an “unendurable outrage.” As I've mentioned elsewhere on the blog, Poetry magazine and its editors defended Pound's work (though not his politics) vigorously, and documented the media frenzy.

But what really caught my eye in Filreis's new book is something that he says caught his own eye:

[Reading] Past Z[ukofsky] that day in [the Ransom Center archives in] Texas I retrieved and read with fascination a never-yet-read thick folder of unordered handwritten materials, mostly undated, that turned out to be a regular correspondence between a man named “Leippert” and another person then identified on the file only as “W.M.” “Leippert” caught my eye because I had recently been visiting Chicago, where at the Regenstein Library of the University of Chicago I read letters the apparently conservative poet Wallace Stevens had written to “J. Ronald Lane Latimer.” “Latimer” was the founder and publisher of Alcestis Press, which published two of Stevens’s books of poems in the 1930s. I had learned there that the given name of this odd “Latimer” was George Leippert, born and raised in Albany, New York; and he had at least five other pseudonyms. I had already been to Albany to talk with contemporary residents named Leippert and had luckily found Melissa Leippert, sister of the pseudonymous publisher. I knew from the Latimer-Stevens connection that Willard Maas (my “W.M.” at the Ransom Center) had been Latimer’s associate editor and close friend, and I learned from Melissa that a half-century earlier her brother had “run off with Maas,” although until I read the unprocessed folder of letters in Austin I did not fully know what that meant.

The name Leippert caught my eye because in my research on Basil Bunting I discovered a fine correspondence between BB and Leippert, which is much quoted in my critical edition. As Al points out, Leippert-Latimer's papers are in Chicago, and the fellow seems to have corresponded with a Who's Who of modern and modernist writers and editors: E.E. Cummings, Ford Madox Ford, James Laughlin, John Peale Bishop, Erskine Caldwell, Allen Tate, Archibald MacLeish, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Robert Penn Warren, William Carlos Williams and, of course, Wallace Stevens and Bunting. In addition to the Alcestis Press, and under the name James G. Leippert he edited the periodicals The New Broom and The Lion and Crown . If I were an academician, I'd focus on this intriguing fellow bigtime, if only to unearth each and every one of his many assumed names and to read all his correspondence - poets seemed to tell him just about everything, and revealed many of their prejudices...

Al adds, in a piece for Jacket, that he

became fascinated with Latimer and tried to find photographs of him in his various phases: Columbia student, publisher-communist, then Buddhist in flowing robes in New Mexico, then expatriate in Japan, finally Episcopal priest in Florida (while living with a young man whom he told neighbors was his son--and who might have been his son, for all I know, but doubtful). I actually have a photo of him in Florida, posing, in his collar, with his large dog. And I have one of him standing on the steps of Columbia's library from 1932. But I've only had a glimpse--on TV as it aired--of the Alice Neel portrait of Latimer depicted in the Nancy Baer documentary. (There's also a painting done of Latimer in Buddhist robes done by Santa Fe-based painter Miki Hayakawa.)

Anyway, to find out what the Leippert affair meant, read Filreis's book... which also asks and tries to answer the question: "Why has avant-garde writing been such a strong conductor for the doubts and fears of the American conservative?" And of course, one doesn't have to be American or a conservative, or to have fears, to have doubts about "avant-garde writing." (Long threads on Harriet have been devoted to asking just what avant-garde and post-avant garde writing is and means, to virtually no avail, it must be said.) Filreis's forte is what he calls "detailed exploration of ideological antimodernism," and he's done his homework, as you can see; check out an excerpt from his book here.

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