Friday, April 30, 2010

Wine for the aching heart

Not long ago, I was asked to guest blog for TriQuarterly, but it's not going to happen, as it turns out; I'd planned to write about two great issues of the now-defunct print magazine. One was the iconic and long-useful number 43, entitled The Little Magazine in America: A Modern Documentary History - published in 1978 and later reprinted as a hardcover book, this whopping 750-page issue was for a long time the best history of American litmags you could find, and it featured entries directly from the folks behind 'em. (I hear that an update is in the works, but who knows...) However, I was also to blog about the special issue - number 19, Fall 1970 - devoted to Edward Dahlberg and guest-edited by the legendary Jonthan Williams. Contributors included:

Williams himself, Eric Mottram, Anthony Burgess, Kay Boyle, Gilbert Sorrentino, Ronald Johnson, Tom Meyer, Guy Davenport, Josphine Herbst, John Wain, Allen Tate, Paul Metcalf, Karl Shapiro, Hugh Kenner, Robert Kelly, Paul Carroll, Cid Corman, James Laughlin, Theodore Wilentz, Muriel Rukeyser, Thomas Merton, Thomas McGrath, Joel Oppenheimer, Jack Kerouac, Stanley Burnshaw, Christopher Middleton, Philip Whalen, Anselm Hollo, Anthony Kerrigan, Larry Eigner, R.B. Kitaj... and others!

That's quite an assembly, although women are conspicuously in the minority; perhaps Fanny Howe's shocking anecdote about Dahlberg - "Because He Was Flesh" - explains why.

Well, here are just a few highlights, posted here as a tribute to the heyday of the old TriQ.

From Jonathan Williams' introduction to the issue, "How to roast a Festschrift, as well as how to cook a phoenix":

I write poems that are laconic as pebbles, so when it comes time to write prose I like to pull out all the stops and do a lot of throat-clearing and ground-pawing, like Anton Bruckner, another rusticated, mountainous person.

Quotations of Dahlberg from Eric Mottram's "Ishmael in America":

Go into one of those vast sepulchral supermarkets, where people hardly talk to one another, and where self-service prevails, and you quite it more wormy than Lazarus. After one has brought canned peas, or pallid, storage carrots wrapped in cellophane as the dead Pharaohs were garmented in papyri, you go to the cashier. Often a sour, wordless man or woman drops the coins into the palm of your hand so as not to touch it. But unless we exchange human germs, or otherwise we dare not kiss our mother, father, or wife, we will expire, diseased and cankered, in absolute solitude.

The cause of so much newfangled ignorant verbosity is... the result of hubris; the misuse of words comes from the doctrine of pride.

A word that arouses some sort of contemplative or physical activity is good, and one that does not is base.

Lonely artists create pariah wisdom.

from Anthony Burgess, "Honoring a prophet in his own country":

The best, said W.B. Yeats, lack all conviction. They also, if they are writers, lack royalties.

[Quoting Dahlberg:] Should a jobbernowl complain that his jocose tale is tedious, flat, and sodden, I repeat what Robert Burton, fantastical author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, hurled at such an abominable fellow: "If you don't like my book, go and read another."

Ronald Johnson, "'Be Primordial or Decay," quoting excerpts of Dahlberg's letters to Jonathan Williams):

As I belong to no literary merchants' sodality, I do not know what will happen to my own book or where it will be reviewed. I have fought too many pecuniary street-gamins of literature to get balm or even the smallest moiety of justice from most places.

Do we have to go to books to be assassinated?

I would rather be dead than stuffed with the kind of success that would make me invulnerable to the acclivities and the oceans and the archipelagos of another human soul.

... as for who is important, is it not always a gnat, a man who has no talent, and no character, who is always prattling about importance. What is significant in this life? Suppose I write a remarkably honest book, imagine that it has genius, who will believe it, and after four persons admit it, you are in the gutter of limbo anyway, or if you are a successful branch of literature, why that is worse, you are less than a worm, you imagine that because 12 unimportant people say you were as gifted as Euripides you are most willing to confess this to everybody you meet, and upon the first occasion you have.

I abhor children's books. Why, aren't children human beings? We imagine they are monsters, belonging to some separate race of imbeciles, and compose verse and tales particularly for them. Why not give a boy or girl the best; he can misunderstand Blake or Herrick just as easily at 10 years of age as he can at 50. Better to misconceive the best than to understand the worst...

Do you want a quick reputation, or do you propose to be a poet?

I am caught in the middle between the marxists who I think have killed letters and the cartels who have destroyed everything, the earth, the furrow, the elms, human affections, the liver, and I think the pudendum too.

You can't get people to read, and so you prepare as a snare for them drawings or photography, hoping that after they have glanced for a delirious minute at the camera pictures or the artist's illustrations they will then be tempted to go from one to the other. Admiring even a great oil painting by Velasquez requires the smallest amount of intellectual attention, whereas you cannot examine Plato's Critias without employing all your faculties. In short, we are art-crazy because we are lazy, supine, and do not care to use our minds.

We are not more, but often less than the people we venerate...


"I am by nature an iconoclast," Dahlberg wrote to Karl Shapiro, "but one who is always in search of images, fables and proverbs - the wine for an aching heart."

My thanks to Ian Morris.

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